SPRINGFIELD, Mo. We love our science fiction, but up until this week we had seen only computer animations of black holes, a region of space with immense gravity from which nothing, not even light, can escape.
But this week we finally got to see the real thing as the National Science Foundation unveiled the first-ever image of a black hole in a galaxy that's 55 million light years from earth. The black hole is three million times the size of earth with a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun. A bright halo around it is caused by super-heated gas falling into the hole.
"Black holes sit in the middle of galaxies, they swallow stars, they're part of the formation process of galaxies, and they are holes in the fabric of space," said Dr. Greg Ojakangas, an associate professor of physics at Drury University. "They're the subject of a lot of science fiction of course because it's such a fascinating concept."
Dr. Ojakangas is also a former NASA employee who was a finalist in their astronaut selection program and he explained that the reason everyone is so giddy about the discovery is because the first-ever black hole photo helps prove Albert Einstein's 100 year-old theory of relativity that space and time are like fabric that can be stretched.
If you were to take a spacecraft into a black hole, the gravitational pull would be so strong that "time literally stands still," Ojakangas said. "It would be impossible to get back because you'd have to travel faster than the speed of light."
As to where you'd end up if you went down a black hole? The answer remains a mystery.
"There's been a lot of speculation about whether this bridge (known as the Einstein Rosen Bridge, the passage through the black hole) leads to another universe or could conceivably lead back in time in our own universe," Ojakangas said. "It's an open question still because we're not only looking at a hole in the fabric of space but we're looking at the boundary of human knowledge."
Even the thought though that black holes might someday provide answers to time travel is enough to intrigue us all and even getting to this point took a massive effort of eight linked-up telescopes located all around the globe.
"When they're all combined together they behave like a single radio telescope as big as the entire earth," Ojakangas said.
Among the collaborators on that telescope project was Dr. Fredrick Baganoff, a research scientist at MIT who earned his bachelor's degree from Missouri S&T in Rolla in 1985.
"Except perhaps for our NASA scientists and our astronauts this is probably the highest profile accomplishment of any of our alumni in the area of space exploration," said Dr. Steve Roberts, the vice provost and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business at Missouri S&T. "We're all science fiction aficionados and to know that one of our own was at the center of this huge international group that pulled off this incredible accomplishment makes us thrilled and proud."
The first-ever images of a black hole also came during a week when an unmanned Israeli spacecraft crashed while trying to land on the moon and Space X successful brought three rocket boosters back to earth safely as part of a reusable deep-space launcher for missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
"A lot of what we imagined in the 21st century is actually happening now," Ojakangas said. "It's taken a lot longer than we thought."