May 11, 2022

Has the Milky Way’s Black Hole Come to Light?

The Event Horizon Telescope reaches again for a glimpse of the “unseeable.”

What’s going on with our galaxy?

Astronomers have long suspected that 26,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius, lurking behind the clouds of dust and gas that shroud the center of the Milky Way, there is a massive black hole. Into this darkness, the equivalent of millions of stars have been dispatched to eternity, leaving a ghostly gravitational field and violently twisted space-time. Nobody knows where the door leads or what, if anything, is on the other side.

Humanity is now poised to get its most intimate look at this mayhem. For the last decade, an international team of more than 300 astronomers has been training the Event Horizon Telescope, a globe-spanning network of radio observatories, on Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), a faint source of radio waves — the presumed black hole — at the center of our galaxy. On Thursday at 9 a.m. Eastern time, the team, led by Sheperd Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, will release its latest results in six simultaneous news conferences in Washington, and around the world.

The team is resolute in not speaking to news media. But in April 2019, the same group stunned the world by producing the first picture of a black hole — a supermassive torus of energy in the galaxy Messier 87, or M87, that surrounds emptiness.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” Dr. Doeleman said at the time. That image is now enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The uninformed betting is that the team has now managed to produce an image of Sagittarius A*, our very own doughnut of doom. If Dr. Sheperd’s team has once again seen the “unseeable,” the achievement would reveal a great deal about how the galaxy works and what unfolds in its dim recesses.

The results could be spectacular and informative, said Janna Levin, a gravitational theorist at Barnard College of Columbia University, who was not part of the project. “I’m not bored with pictures of black holes yet,” she said.

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