The fact that black holes appear to release some manner of energy is not in itself sufficient to allow us to photograph them: Hawking’s radiation particles do not comprise nearly enough light. But the EHT team is not trying to photograph these rapacious abysses, as such; they are using incredibly sophisticated radio telescope technology to capture what’s known as the ‘event horizon’, an invisible periphery surrounding black holes, and beyond which no light can escape. To put it no doubt simplistically, a visual record of this veneer would empower the astrophysicists involved to discern the outline of a black hole, by the gleam of distorted light passing through the point of no return.
The network of telescopic radio dishes powerful enough to penetrate a dense mantle of gasses spans the entire world, and, in April last year, yielded visuals of Sagittarius A*, a bright, compact blip at the center of the milky way that might indicate the location of a black hole. The images available from NASA reveal a strikingly beautiful billow of dappled lights, converging around what appears to be an especially bright nucleus. It’s not monumentally large or enrapturing relative to the image as a whole, but, reviewed in context, the glowing white pinprick assumes astonishing significance. The funniest thing, I think, about images of space, is how profoundly moving human beings invariably find the spectacle of these utterly impersonal, obliterating forces. Even seeing the earth from a distance engenders an almost religious experience, in the paradoxical guise of pure science.