It's our first glimpse of one of the weirdest spectacles in the universe: Astronomers released humanity's first image of a black hole Wednesday.
The picture reveals the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the "nearby" Virgo galaxy cluster. It looked like a flaming orange, yellow and black ring.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole," said Sheperd Doeleman, Event Project Horizon project director at Harvard University. “This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.”
Since the black hole is, well, black, what we see in the image is gas and dust circling the hole, just far enough away to be safe.
That hot disk of material that encircles the hole shines bright, according to NASA. Against a bright backdrop, such as this disk, a black hole appears to cast a shadow.
“For years, science fiction movies have imagined what black holes look like," said Duncan Brown of Syracuse University. "The picture taken by the Event Horizon Telescope shows us what they really look like."
Images came from a collection of eight telescopes around the world specifically designed to peer at black holes. The telescopes are in Chile, Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico, Spain and at the South Pole.
This black hole’s “event horizon” – the precipice, or point of no return, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the hole – is as big as our entire solar system.
The measurements are taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see, so the astronomers added color to the image. They chose "exquisite gold because this light is so hot," said Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii. "Making it these warm gold and oranges makes sense."
Start the day smarter: Get USA TODAY's Daily Briefing in your inbox
This black hole is 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun.
The image helps confirm Albert Einstein’s general relativity theory. A century ago, Einstein even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists found.
“The Event Horizon Telescope allows us for the very first time to test the predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity around supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies,” according to project scientist Dimitrios Psaltis of the University of Arizona. “The predicted size and shape of the shadow theory match our observations remarkably well, increasing our confidence in this century-old theory.”
Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “These remarkable new images of the M87 black hole prove that Einstein was right yet again."
The telescope caught whatever light it was able to detect near the black hole. By combining the data from the various telescopes placed around the world, the Event Horizon Telescope has as much magnifying power as a telescope the size of the entire Earth.
This black hole was chosen as the first to be photographed even though it's 2,000 times farther away than the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A. Counterintuitively, this distant black hole is easier for Earth's telescopes to see than the one in our own galaxy.
It's a challenge to capture images of the distant object. It's like “taking a picture of a doughnut placed on the surface of the moon,” according to Psaltis.
Most black holes are the condensed remnants of a massive star, the collapsed core that remains after an explosive supernova. A black hole's gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape its grasp.
Like all outer space objects, the image is what the black hole looked like long ago. Since it's 53 million light-years away, we see what the black hole looked like 53 million years ago.
“This astonishing image and discovery will allow us to better understand the early days of the cosmos and how it will evolve deep into the future," said David J. Eicher, editor in chief of Astronomy magazine.
"We’ve had evidence of the existence of black holes, but no one has seen the matter around them close up until now," Eicher said. "This new image will profoundly impact science and astronomy for generations to come.”
This breakthrough was announced in a series of six papers published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Wednesday's announcement was made at news events around the world, in locations such as Washington, Brussels, Santiago, Chile, Shanghai, Taipei, Taiwan, and Tokyo.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We have seen what we thought was unseeable': First photo of a black hole revealed