The first-ever picture of a black hole is fuzzy. These incredible illustrations help explain what it shows.

Event Horizon Telescope CollaborationThe first image of a black hole.

Nearly 235 years after black holes were first theorised to exist, scientists have taken the first-ever clear picture of one. The image shows a supermassive black hole at the center of the “supergiant” galaxy Messier 87, or M87.

The black hole weighs about as much as 6.5 billion suns, and the shadow of its event horizon – where gravity is so strong not even light can travel fast enough to escape it – stretches about 25 billion miles (40 billion kilometers) wide. That’s more than three times the diameter of Pluto’s orbit in our solar system.

“We’re looking at a region that we’ve never looked at before – a region we cannot imagine being there. It feels like looking at the gates of Hell, at the end of space and time,” Heino Falcke, an astrophysicist at Radboud University Nijmegen and an Event Horizon Telescope collaborator, said during a live press briefing.

The unprecedented photo was taken in radio wavelengths of light by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which is a “virtual” observatory the size of Earth. (The EHT Collaboration just published six studies about their research in Astrophysical Journal Letters.)

The picture is also a bit small and hard to discern, though this was hardly unexpected. Before the image went public, Misty Bentz, an astrophysicist at Georgia State University, told Business Insider she anticipated “more of a fuzzy blob” than anything else.

“It’s important to remember that we’re talking about pictures of objects that are on the scale of our solar system, but we are viewing them from … 54 million light-years away,” Bentz said.

To understand what the first picture of a black hole actually shows, it helps to look at a series of simulated images that astrophysicists and computer scientists generated years before Wednesday’s big announcement.

The Event Horizon Telescope is made up of observatories around the world. Working together, they can function as a single “virtual” telescope the size of Earth.

ESO/O. FurtakAll the participating observatories in the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration.

Collaborators knew photographing a black hole — even a huge one — would be hard. Falcke said seeing M87’s black hole was like being able to view a mustard seed in Brussels from Washington, DC.

ShutterstockMustard seeds are really, really small.

Astrophysicists and computer scientists worked side-by-side to build advanced models of supermassive black holes, partly in anticipation of what EHT might reveal.

D. Psaltis, A. Broderick/ESOThree different simulations showing what a supermassive black hole might look like to the Event Horizon Telescope.

They based their simulations on relativistic physics (how the universe works at extreme speeds and densities) that Albert Einstein pioneered in the early 1900s.

Since Einstein’s discoveries, new research has revealed in detail the features black holes should have, including the monster at the heart of galaxy M87.

ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser; Business InsiderAn artist’s impression of a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Key features of black holes are labelled in red.

There are six main features of supermassive black holes:

  1. Singularity – The infinitely dense “heart” of a black hole. These are made by collapsing or colliding stars.
  2. Event horizon – The point where a black hole’s gravitational force is so strong that not even light can travel fast enough to escape it.
  3. Accretion disk – Super-hot gas and dust from dead stars, planets, and other objects that get too close to a black hole. Next to an event horizon, these discs create a “shadow” that astronomers can now see.
  4. Innermost stable circular orbit (ISCO) – The last point where orbiting matter can exist without falling into a black hole.
  5. Relativistic jet (not pictured) – Feeding black holes shoot out powerful jets of particles at near light-speed from their poles. Astronomers can see the jets reflecting off distant clouds of gas and dust.
  6. Photon sphere – A region where light emitted by jets and in-falling matter gets trapped in a perfectly circular orbit just beyond the event horizon.

Some of the simulations animate black holes close-up and over compressed spans of time. This one shows what an orbiting “hot spot” of matter in an accretion disk would look from multiple perspectives. It reveals how black holes can dramatically warp the fabric of space.

Credit: Avery Broderick and Avi Loeb via EHT

This animation shows a slice of a rotating accretion disk and where it’s least dense (blue) to most dense (red).

Credit: Hotaka Shiokawa via EHT

EHT’s image shows a black hole in radio waves of about 1.3 millimetres in wavelength. This visualisation shows what a black hole might look in light ranging from 10 mm down to 0.001 mm. (Human eyes can detect light ranging from 0.00075 mm down to 0.0004 mm.)

Credit: Chi-Kwan Chan via EHT

Black holes are tangled messes of magnetic fields (white lines), thanks to their spin and orbiting disk of superheated matter (orange). This animation shows the relativistic jets (grey) created by a black hole feeding on matter.

Credit: Hotaka Shiokawa via EHT

How fast and which direction a black hole spins determines a lot about the look of its accretion disk, shadow, and relativistic jets. This animation simulates one type of spin …

Credit: Lia Medeiros, Chi-Kwan Chan, Feryal Özel, Dimitrios Psaltis via EHT

… and this one shows another spin that leads to a different-looking accretion disk and pair of jets.

Credit: Lia Medeiros, Chi-Kwan Chan, Feryal Özel, Dimitrios Psaltis via EHT

If we were willing to build a telescope far more powerful than EHT, we might record images akin to these — in which a black hole’s shadow and accretion disk are breathtakingly clear.

One side of an accretion disk is always brighter because the materials are moving at significant fractions of the speed of light, according to Timothy Brandt, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies black holes but is not part of the EHT collaboration.

“Part of it’s going to be brighter and part of it’s going to be fainter,” Brandt told Business Insider before Wednesday’s announcement. “Some of it’s coming towards you, and that’s going to be brighter because of relativistic beaming.”

Beaming is comparable to the Doppler effect, which is what makes an approaching ambulance’s siren sound higher-pitched and one driving away sound lower-pitched. At velocities close to light speed, stuff that’s moving toward Earth will look brighter and bluer, while stuff that’s moving away from Earth will appear dimmer and redder.

Credit: Hotaka Shiokawa via EHT

This is a more fanciful version of the previous animation that boosts the brightness of potentially detectable wavelengths of light.

Credit: Hotaka Shiokawa via EHT

If humans ever saw a supermassive black hole, it might look like this one from the sci-fi movie “Interstellar.” However, the nearest such monster — called Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”) — is 26,000 light-years away at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Paramount PicturesAn illustration of a black hole from the sci-fi movie ‘Interstellar.’

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.