For the first time, we are seeing an image of one of the most mysterious and fascinating corners of the universe:with 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun. It is devouring the insides of a galaxy about 55 million light years away.
It's a major milestone for cosmologists, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann. Black holes are the universe's most powerful vacuum. They inhale everything – not even light can escape their pull.
A scene from "Interstellar" was thought to be the most realistic movie depiction ever of a black hole. Turns out, Hollywood's fantasy was close to reality.
"When we saw this come into focus, our jaws dropped," astrophysicist Shep Doeleman said. He leads an international team of scientists that unveiled this circular silhouette against the glow of superheated matter swirling into its dark abyss.
It's a cosmic first – visual proof of the supermassive black hole. It is nearly 25 billion miles across, almost the size of our solar system, in the center of a nearby galaxy called Messier 87.
"I think this image will be an important part of astronomy going forward for years to come," Doeleman said, adding, "To know that these monsters exist, that is humbling."
Cosmologists believe black holes are born when a colossal object, like a supersized star, dies and collapses in on itself. The result is a bottomless sinkhole where all known laws of physics fall apart.
Just like in the movies, their irresistible gravitational pull swallows anything that strays too close.
Capturing the historic image was said to be like spotting a donut on the surface of the moon. Scientists had to synchronize eight radio telescopes on four continents. Four imaging teams on supercomputers needed two years to crunch all the data.
"It's amazing to me that we can ... see a supermassive black hole in the heart of a galaxy 55 million light years away. You can't make it up," Doeleman said.
Albert Einstein's relativity theories first predicted black holes more than a century ago, but even he thought they were too bizarre to actually exist. Now scientists think black holes lurk in the hearts of other galaxies. An image of the one closest to us inside the Milky Way could be next.