“The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
On Thursday, May 5, a newly unveiled image of glowing entity with a dark hole in the middle made headlines. Is it the Eye of Sauron? No! It’s the first image of our Milky Way galaxy’s hometown black hole, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Like many of its kind, our very own supermassive black hole has such intense gravity that it bends space and time, forming a torus of light with an infinite void in the center. Previously, the only confirmed presence of a comparable void was at the heart of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The mass of this entity, known as Sagittarius A* or Sgr A* due to its proximity to the Sagittarius constellation when seen from Earth, is equal to more than four million suns, and it reaches temperatures in the trillions of degrees. It’s also known to casually consume stars. Luckily, if anything can hold up against the sucking void of eternal space-time, it is the confidence of a Sagittarius (what up, my fellow archers)!
Despite the cosmic volatility inherent to black holes, Feryal Özel, a University of Arizona astronomer, characterized the find in more benevolent terms, calling the achievement “the first direct image of the gentle giant in the center of our galaxy.”
“We find a bright ring surrounding the black hole shadow,” Özel told the Washington Post. “It seems that black holes like doughnuts.”
It’s difficult to detect, but we believe the scientist made a joke there — however, it’s now only a matter of minutes before some ambitious, nerdy baker starts churning out Sgr A* doughnuts, which I’m envisioning as a Mexican dark chocolate cake base with lava cake filling and a bright lemon-orange citrus glaze. That idea is free to anyone who will send me one dozen of them immediately.
This is a win for the EHT array, which links together eight existing radio observatories across the planet to form a single Earth-sized virtual telescope, and boldly set out to photograph black holes in 2017. Their first success came in 2019, when they pulled off a snapshot of the black hole in the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, located some 55 million light-years away from Earth. But this new image is much closer to home and was a true collective effort, drawing on contributions from more than 300 scientists at 80 institutions, supported by the National Science Foundation.
“What’s more cool than seeing the black hole at the center of our Milky Way?” said team member Katherine Bouman, a computational imaging scientist at Caltech. Bouman developed a crucial algorithm for the imaging methods as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Science has done its part. Now it’s all up to memelords and bakers to transform this astronomical achievement into bite-sized victories (and, again, send me doughnuts).