Experts at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have achieved something which has never been done before, and offered the public a glimpse of a black hole. The European commissioner for research, Carlos Moedas, heralded the moment, telling a conference: “The history of man and of science will be divided into the time before the image and the time after the image. Black holes are stranger than anything dreamt up by science fiction writers, but they are firmly matters of science fact.” Before today, black holes had never been directly observed but by the way space acts around them, scientists were able to deduce that they do exist.
A black hole is a point in spacetime where the gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light – the fastest thing in the universe – as vast amounts of mass are squashed into an infinitesimal point.
There are a few ways in which a black hole can form.
Scientists believe the most common instance is when a star, thousands of times the size of our sun, collapses in on itself when it dies – known as a supernova.
Another way is when a large amount of matter, which can be in the form of a gas cloud or a star collapses in on itself through its own gravitational pull.
Finally, the collision of two neutron stars can cause a black hole.
The reason a black hole has been so hard to photograph is because, by their very nature, impossible to see, since they consume all light, making it impossible for any light from one of the entities to reach us on Earth.
But, the ESO has been involved in an international collaberation with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) to gather data since 2006 in an attempt to capture the event horizon of a black hole – the point at which nothing can escape.
The EHT “collects light from the black hole using a small number of telescopes distributed around the Earth.”