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Has a black hole ever been photographed?

Black holes are some of the most mysterious objects in the universe. As their name suggests, black holes are regions in space where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light. This makes black holes invisible to conventional telescopes. For decades, the only way astronomers could detect black holes was by observing their gravitational influence on nearby stars and gas. However, in 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration captured the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow. This historic image provides insight into the nature of black holes and confirms predictions made by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

What is a black hole?

A black hole is a region of spacetime with gravity so intense that nothing can escape from it, including light. Black holes form when massive stars run out of fuel and collapse under their own weight. This collapse crushes the core of the star down to an extremely small size, creating a gravitational field so powerful that not even light can escape once it crosses the black hole’s boundary, known as the event horizon.

Nothing that enters a black hole can ever escape, which is why black holes are virtually invisible. The immense gravitational forces distort spacetime so much that the laws of physics begin to break down. Black holes literally warp and swallow light itself, making them appear as black voids in space.

Types of black holes

There are a few main types of black holes:

  • Stellar black holes – Formed when massive stars collapse. These range from about 3 to 100 solar masses.
  • Supermassive black holes – Found at the center of most galaxies, including the Milky Way. These range from hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses.
  • Intermediate black holes – Believed to have masses between stellar and supermassive black holes.
  • Miniature black holes – Hypothetical tiny black holes that may have formed in the early universe.

Predicting black holes

The foundations for understanding black holes came from Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity, which describes gravity as the warping of spacetime. The predictions of general relativity suggested the possibility of black holes, although Einstein himself did not believe they actually existed. However, in 1916, German astronomer Karl Schwarzschild solved Einstein’s equations and found a mathematical solution describing an object with gravity so strong that nothing could escape. However, the term “black hole” was not coined until 1967 by physicist John Wheeler.

Over the decades, astronomers accumulated evidence for the existence of black holes, such as by observing the motions of stars orbiting invisible massive objects at the centers of galaxies. They also observed powerful X-ray emissions coming from incredibly dense and compact regions of space. As technology and observational techniques improved, astronomers gained more tools to study black holes and verify Einstein’s predictions.

Capturing the “unseeable”

Because black holes do not emit or reflect light, they cannot be directly observed with conventional telescopes that detect electromagnetic radiation. However, black holes can still be imaged in other ways. The gravity of black holes distorts and bends the light from background objects. As early as 1979, astronomers measured the motions of stars very close to the suspected supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way and inferred the presence of a compact, dark, and massive object.

Imaging a black hole requires using a telescope the size of Earth. In the 1990s, scientistsproposed linking radio telescopes across the planet to create a virtual Earth-sized telescope with ultra-high resolution, called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Development of the EHT began in the early 2000s using a handful of telescopes and gradually expanded to incorporate more observatories across the globe.

Imaging the black hole at the center of M87

In 2019, the EHT finally succeeded in capturing the first-ever image of a black hole’s event horizon – the boundary beyond which no light can escape. The EHT imaged the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, which has a mass of 6.5 billion Suns and is located 55 million light-years from Earth.

This groundbreaking achievement provided the first direct visual confirmation of supermassive black holes and allowed astronomers to compare observations with predictions from general relativity. The black hole appears as a dark central region in the image, delineated by a bright ring of hot gas swirling around the event horizon. The EHT image lines up closely with theoretical models and gave astronomers their first glimpse at the shadow of a black hole.

Studying black holes

Photographing a black hole is tremendously challenging, but provides enormous scientific rewards. Direct imaging allows astronomers to study how gravity warps light around black holes and test Einstein’s theories in extreme gravitational environments. Analyzing black holes also gives insight into galaxy formation and evolution, since supermassive black holes seem to influence the galaxies they reside in.

In addition to visual confirmation, astronomers can study black holes by observing their gravitational effects on nearby matter, or by detecting the radiation emitted by infalling material. Matter spiraling into a black hole releases intense X-rays that can be measured by telescopes. The EHT and other modern instruments provide complementary data on gravitational environments that cannot be probed any other way.

Future observations

Now that the technical feat of imaging a black hole has been accomplished, astronomers are eager to study other targets, improve techniques, and glean new insights. The EHT team plans to create even sharper images and videos to observe the M87 black hole over time. They also hope to image Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy.

Ongoing advances in instrumentation and global telescope networks will enable more detailed study and imaging of black holes in the future. Proposed next-generation instruments include the Next Generation Very Large Array, which would greatly sharpen Event Horizon Telescope images.


Black holes remain one of the most intriguing mysteries of the universe. While we cannot directly see them, the advent of modern telescopes and observational methods have allowed astronomers to study black holes like never before. The direct imaging of a supermassive black hole in 2019 represented a major scientific breakthrough and offered an unprecedented glimpse of these gravitational monsters predicted by Einstein’s theories over a century ago. Moving forward, black holes will continue to be prime targets for pushing the frontiers of astronomy and physics.