Collaboration and innovation lead to the first-ever image of a black hole

Today, the Event Horizon Telescope Project announced they have captured the first image of a black hole—an achievement that will inspire people everywhere and enhance our understanding of these mysterious astrophysical phenomena.

As an astrophysicist, this is an exciting day for me. Black holes have captivated the imaginations of scientists and the public for decades. In fact, we’ve been studying black holes for so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us has actually seen one.

Yes, we have simulations and illustrations. Thanks to instruments supported by the National Science Foundation, we’ve detected gravitational waves from merging black holes through the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. Last year, our IceCube Neutrino facility at the South Pole detected a single high-energy cosmic neutrino, coupled with satellites to pinpoint its point of origin: a blazar, which is a galactic nucleus powered by a supermassive black hole with intense jets.

But we’ve never actually seen the event horizon, that point-of-no-return after which nothing, not even light, can escape a black hole.

How did we arrive at this breakthrough? Through the imagination and dedication of scientists around the world willing to collaborate to achieve a huge goal. Through a large pool of international facilities. And through long-term financial commitments from NSF and other funders willing to take a risk in pursuit of an enormous potential payoff. The Event Horizon project would have been impossible without international cooperation among facilities, the contributions of dozens of scientists and engineers, and sustained funding.

No single telescope on Earth has the sharpness to create an unblurred, definitive image of a black hole’s event horizon. So, this team did what all good researchers do – they innovated.

More than five decades ago, other NSF-funded researchers helped lead the development of Very Long Baseline Interferometry, which increases the capabilities of telescopes by linking them. This team took that concept to a global scale, connecting telescopes to create a virtual array the size of the Earth itself. This was a herculean task that involved overcoming numerous technical difficulties.

It was a goal so remarkable that NSF has invested more than $30 million over a decade – joined by many other agencies in our support – as these researchers shaped their idea into reality.

As you gaze into the void for the first time, one thing I hope will resonate is that this is the future of astronomy – of all scientific fields. The Event Horizon Project demonstrates that we need more collaboration, more convergence, and more shared resources to build instruments and find new applications for the ones we already have.

Working together, we can continue to explore the universe and tackle and solve more of its mysteries.