Astronomers have managed to look behind a black hole for the first time and have proved that Albert Einstein was right about how these mysterious celestial behemoths behave.
An international team of researchers used high-powered X-ray telescopes to study a supermassive black hole 800 million light years away at the centre of a distant galaxy.
The researchers saw the usual hallmarks of a black hole, but they also spotted light – in the form of X-rays – which was being emitted by the far side of the black hole.
Black holes are born when a gargantuan star explodes in a supernova and then collapses in on itself. This forms an incomprehensibly dense material which swallows up everything in its general vicinity, and therefore it should be impossible to see light from the back of a black hole.
However, Einstein’s dogmatic theory of general relativity predicted in 1915 that the gravitational pull of black holes is likely so enormous that they warp the very fabric of space, twisting magnetic fields and bending light.
As a result, Einstein’s work asserted that it should be possible to see light waves ejected from the far side of the black hole because of the distorted magnetic fields acting as a mirror.
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Experts accepted the theory, but have been unable to directly observe the phenomenon until now, thanks to modern telescopes and the development of highly sensitive instruments.
Dan Wilkins, an astrophysicist at Stanford University, was studying the mechanics of how a black hole rips atoms and electrons apart, and the X-rays this subsequently produces. Upon inspecting the data he saw what he expected, X-rays spewed directly towards Earth from the black hole’s core, but he also saw unexpected echoes shortly afterwards.
These, he said, were X-rays which were flung out in the opposite direction of Earth, but were reflected by the black hole’s mangled magnetic field.
The finding, published in Nature, yet again proves Einstein was correct, and further backs up the theory of general relativity.
“Fifty years ago, when astrophysicists starting speculating about how the magnetic field might behave close to a black hole, they had no idea that one day we might have the techniques to observe this directly and see Einstein’s general theory of relativity in action,” said Prof Roger Blandford, a co-author of the research, also from Stanford University.