Black hole image of Sagittarius A* revealed by scientists from the center of the Milky Way

Scientists on Thursday got the first glimpse of the monster lurking at the center of our Milky Way, revealing an image of a supermassive black hole devouring any matter that wanders within its gargantuan gravitational pull.

The Black Hole – dubbed Sagittarius Aor SgrA – is only the second ever pictured. The feat was accomplished by the same international collaboration with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) that revealed in 2019 the first-ever photo of a black hole – located at the heart of another galaxy.

Sagittarius A* has 4 million times the mass of our Sun and is located about 26,000 light years – the distance that light travels in one year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km) – from Earth.

Black holes are exceptionally dense objects with gravity so strong that not even light can escape, making observing them quite difficult. A black hole’s event horizon is the point of no return, beyond which everything – stars, planets, gas, dust, and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – fade into oblivion.

Project scientists have been looking for a ring of light – superheated, disrupted matter and radiation spinning at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon – around a dark region that represents the actual black hole. This is known as the shadow or silhouette of the black hole.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy with at least 100 billion stars. Viewed from above or below, it resembles a spinning pinwheel, with our Sun on one of the spiral arms and Sagittarius A* at the center.

The 2019 image of the supermassive black hole in a galaxy called Messier 87, or M87, showed a glowing ring of red, yellow, and white surrounding a dark center. More distant and massive than Sagittarius A*, black hole M87 is about 54 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of our Sun.

The researchers said that Sagittarius A*, although much closer to our solar system than M87, is harder to image.

The diameter of Sagittarius A* is about 17 times the diameter of the Sun, meaning it would be within the solar orbit of the innermost planet Mercury. In contrast, the diameter of M87 would encompass our entire solar system.

“Sagittarius A* is over a thousand times less massive than the black hole at M87, but because it’s in our own galaxy, it’s much closer and should appear only slightly larger in the sky,” radio astronomer Lindy Blackburn told EHT data scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“But the smaller physical size of Sgr A also means that for Sgr A everything changes about a thousand times faster as M87. We also have to look through the chaotic disk of our own galaxy to see Sgr A*, which blurs and distorts the image,” Blackburn added.

The Event Horizon Telescope is a global network of observatories working together to observe radio sources associated with black holes. The project was launched in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate vicinity of a black hole.

There are different categories of black holes. The smallest are so-called stellar-mass black holes, formed by the collapse of individual massive stars at the end of their life cycle. There are also intermediate mass black holes, an increase in mass. And finally, there are the supermassive black holes that inhabit the centers of most galaxies. These are thought to form relatively soon after their galaxies form, consuming enormous amounts of material to reach colossal sizes.

Thursday’s announcement came in simultaneous news conferences in the United States, Germany, China, Mexico, Chile, Japan and Taiwan. Black hole image of Sagittarius A* revealed by scientists from the center of the Milky Way

Ryan Sederquist

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