Scientists lifted the veil on one of the universe’s most enigmatic objects Wednesday when they released the first image of a black hole at the center of a distant galaxy.
The picture is beautiful and simple — a ring of fire circling a dark center — and one that provided Hawaii astronomers Jessica Dempsey and Geoff Bower a bit of chicken skin.
“I didn’t believe it could be real,” said Dempsey, deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, when explaining her reaction to the picture. “It matched the predictions so much.”
The JCMT and Submillimeter Array, both located on Maunakea, are among the eight radio telescopes that make up the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of observatories that worked together to image the supermassive black hole, an object with the mass of 6 billion suns that would take up our entire solar system.
The network allowed them to make an Earth-sized telescope, without which the object 53 million light-years away wouldn’t be visible.
Beyond providing a breathtaking, though blurry, visual, the image allows scientists to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which says gravity is a warping of space and time.
Dempsey and Bower, SMA’s chief scientist, said the black hole looks as it should based on the theory.
“I had a lot of confidence in us to do the experiment well,” Bower said.
“But I didn’t think nature would be as cooperative as it was, and produce such an exact rendering of what we expected to see.
“That ring-shaped feature is the prediction of the theory of general relativity. What we’re seeing is light that gets bent by the very strong gravity of the black hole.”
Black holes are so dense that not even light can escape their grasp once it crosses the event horizon. Previously, their presence only could be determined indirectly, such as their effects on other objects.
Supermassive ones, such as the one imaged, are located at the center of most galaxies, including our Milky Way.
The EHT also is observing that black hole but that image has not been released.
The light seen in the picture is emitted from hot dust and gas in orbit just outside the event horizon.
Dempsey had another chicken skin moment when she and Bower met with Larry Kimura, associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language. Kimura was asked to give it a Hawaiian name.
Before they could finish explaining the discovery, Kimura had an answer — Powehi, meaning embellished dark source of unending creation, which he sourced from the Kumulipo, a creation chant.
“He explained in one word what took six research papers to say in scientific language,” Dempsey said.
Po was referred to in a press release as the “profound dark source of unending creation,” while wehi means “honored with embellishments.”
“It’s an item that consists of this dark, dark boundless energy,” said Kimura, when describing how Po relates to the black hole.
He said he also got chicken skin at that moment.
“As they were talking, it wasn’t hard for me to say,” Kimura said. “Well, it’s already been said. This has already been thought of.”
Powehi won’t become the black hole’s official name unless it is confirmed by the International Astronomical Union.
The IAU previously accepted the name ‘Oumuamua, which Kimura also came up with, for the first interstellar space rock to be detected.
The EHT observed the black hole back in 2017 during a period of four days.
Completing the image took supercomputers and hundreds of terabytes of data.
The telescopes that make up the EHT aren’t the only ones studying black holes.
The W.M. Keck Observatory, also on Maunakea, has been turning its twin telescopes into the galactic center for years.
John O’Mera, Keck chief scientist, said a research team has been studying the stars that orbit closest to the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole. The observatory is too small for a direct image of the black hole since that takes an Earth-sized telescope like the one created by the EHT network.
“It’s a thrill to see such verification of the things that were just in our head prior to that,” O’Mera said regarding EHT’s achievement.
He said Keck will soon make its own announcement regarding its black hole observations, which also test the theory of general relativity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.