Astronomers have captured first proof of the “gentle giant” hiding at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, with a stunning image of a supermassive black hole lurking in our own backyard.
The black hole — called Sagittarius A*, or SgrA* — is the first to be imaged in the Milky Way and the second ever.
The brilliant orange photo reveals something that had been theorised by scientists who had sought to uncover the mystery at the heart of our spiralling galaxy.
The black hole, which devours any matter wandering within its gargantuan gravitational pull, is located 26,000 light years away from Earth which is safely tucked away in a spiral arm of the Milky Way.
The image was taken by the same Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) international collaboration that in 2019 unveiled the first-ever photo of a black hole — that one residing at the heart of a different galaxy.
University of Arizona astronomer Feryal Özel hailed “the first direct image of the gentle giant in the centre of our galaxy,” showing a glowing ring of red, yellow and white surrounding a darker centre.
Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius “A” star) possesses four million times the mass of our sun.
Black holes are extraordinarily dense objects with gravity so strong that not even light can escape, making viewing them quite challenging.
A black hole’s event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything — stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation — gets dragged into oblivion.
Project scientists have looked for a ring of light — super-heated disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon — around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole.
This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.
“This image shows a bright ring surrounding the darkness, the telltale sign of the shadow of the black hole,” Özel said.
“Light escaping from the hot gas swirling around the black hole appears to us as the bright ring. Light that is too close to the black hole — close enough to be swallowed by it — eventually crosses its horizon and leaves behind just a dark void in the centre.”
“It turned out to be a gentler, more co-operative black hole than we had hoped for in the past decade of simulating its environment,” Özel added.
“We love our black hole.”
The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy that contains at least 100 billion stars.
Viewed from above or below it resembles a spinning pinwheel, with our sun situated on one of the spiral arms and Sagittarius A* located at the centre.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astrophysicist Michael Johnson called the black hole “ravenous but inefficient,” eating relatively little matter.
The image released in 2019 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 centre.
The M87 black hole is far more distant and massive than Sagittarius A*, situated about 54 million light-years from earth with a mass 6.5 billion times that of our sun.
The researchers said that Sagittarius A*, despite being much closer to our solar system than M87, was harder to image.
The diameter of Sagittarius A* is about 17 times that of the sun, meaning it would sit within the innermost planet Mercury’s solar orbit.
In contrast, M87’s diameter would encompass the entirely of our solar system.
“Sagittarius A* is over a thousand times less massive than the black hole at M87, but since it is in our own galaxy it is much closer and should appear just slightly larger on the sky,” said radio astronomer Lindy Blackburn, an EHT data scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The Event Horizon Telescope is a global network of observatories working collectively to observe radio sources associated with black holes.
The project was begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment 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 massive individual stars at the ends of their life cycles.
There also are intermediate-mass black holes, a step up in mass.
And finally there are the supermassive black holes that inhabit the centre of most galaxies.
These are thought to arise relatively soon after their galaxies are formed, devouring enormous amounts of material to achieve colossal size.
Thursday’s announcement was made in simultaneous news conferences in the United States, Germany, China, Mexico, Chile, Japan and Taiwan.