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For the monster at the Milky Way’s heart, it’s a wrap.

After completing five nights of observations, today astronomers may finally have captured the first-ever image of the famous gravitational sinkhole known as a black hole

More precisely, the hoped-for portrait is of a mysterious region that surrounds the black hole. Called the event horizon, this is the boundary beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape the object’s gargantuan grasp.

As the final observing run ended at 11:22 a.m. ET, team member Vincent Fish sat contentedly in his office at the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts. For the past week, Fish had been on call 24/7, sleeping fitfully with his cell phone next to him, the ringer set loud.

As the last of the data arrived at project observatories, he watched celebratory comments come pouring in on a special chat line for radio astronomers and engineers. One noted that he was about to open a bottle of 50-year-old Scotch. Another was listening to the triumphant chords of Bohemian Rhapsody.

“I’m very happy and very relieved, and I’m looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep,” Fish says.

But that sense of relief is tinged with anticipation: So much data takes time to process, and the team must wait months to find out if their massive effort was truly a success.

“Even if the first images are still crappy and washed out, we can already test for the first time some basic predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity in the extreme environment of a black hole,” says radio astronomer Heino Falcke of Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Introduced in 1915, Einstein’s revolutionary theory says that matter warps or curves the geometry of space-time, and we experience that distortion as gravity. The existence of extremely massive black holes was one of the first predictions of Einstein’s theory.
“They are the ultimate endpoint of space and time, and may represent the ultimate limit of our knowledge,” says Falcke.

Yet astronomers have only circumstantial evidence that they lie hidden at the heart of every large galaxy in the universe. Even Einstein wasn’t sure that they actually existed.

According to Falcke, the first images “will turn black holes from some mythical object to something concrete that we can study.”

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