Researchers unveiled the first image of a black hole silhouette on Wednesday, giving scientists a chance to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity and Brussels room to pull out of the orbit of the hulking U.S. space industry.
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The image was of a halo of matter circling a black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. The black hole itself, where there is such a powerful gravitational force that even light cannot escape and the laws of physics break down, cannot be seen directly.
Even though the project was a joint effort among 40 countries, the announcement was also used by the EU to grab a share of the cosmic glory from the U.S. — which traditionally does a much better job of promoting its space achievements than Europe.
More than 200 scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project combined eight radio telescopes around the world in 2017 — including the Pico Veleta site in Spain’s Sierra Nevada — to create a virtual telescope the size of Earth.
To put it in scale, the image was equivalent to focusing on a mustard seed in Washington as seen from Brussels, even though the black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun, according to Heino Falcke from Radboud University Nijmegen, the German scientist who came up with the idea for the experiment in a paper published in 2000.
Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday as part of a global simulcast to present the discovery, Falcke said the image is like looking at the “gates of hell at the end of space and time.”
The EU stressed it had chipped in €44 million to initiatives that supported the project; there is no single budget for EHT, which combines research resources around the world. It will continue working through data on another black hole in our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, which lies 26,000 light years away from Earth.
“I’m proud of Europe because we have contributed so much to this project,” said Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas during the Brussels press conference. “Black holes are stranger than anything dreamt up by science fiction writers but they are firmly science fact.”
Falcke told POLITICO that the EU had chipped in some of the “biggest funding streams” for the project, adding that work would now shift to expanding the network of telescopes.
Making sure Europe gets its fair share of the glory hasn’t always been guaranteed.
The EU is still smarting over a 2017 NASA announcement on discovering planets beyond the Earth’s solar system that was based on EU-funded research at the University of Liege. The Belgian connection wasn’t especially difficult to root out given the project was dubbed the Search for habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-cool Stars, or SPECULOOS after Belgium’s national biscuit, and the planet system was named TRAPPIST-1, referring to the monk-brewed beer popular in Belgium.
Moedas later told POLITICO that he was “frustrated” at NASA’s “unfair” move and had urged his colleagues to be a “little bit more aggressive on the communication” on space discoveries.
On Wednesday, Brussels made the black hole announcement alongside simulcasts in Washington, Taipei, Tokyo, Pretoria, Shanghai and Santiago.
The move to extol European space research contributions is timely, given that the next EU budget aims to set aside €16 billion for space-based projects, principally satellite constellations for Earth observation and geo-positioning services, and €94 billion for its research program Horizon Europe.
“Science is giving lessons to politicians,” said Moedas of the international cooperation around the black hole project, adding that his own marvelling of the cosmos started when he saw the 1979 film “The Black Hole” as a boy. “Fiction often inspires science, and black holes have long fueled our dreams and curiosity,” he said.