Black holes are fascinating and mysterious, but they’re hard to study. Not only are they black—nothing can escape them, including light—they’re unfathomably distant. But by linking a network of radio telescopes around the country, a team of astronomers has glimpsed for the first time the environment immediately surrounding a supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, more than 50 million light years away.
Specifically, they were able to estimate the size of the base of a galaxy-long plasma jet that shoots out from the hole on either side. It was smaller than anticipated, which suggests the black hole is spinning with incredible velocity—and that the giant ring of superheated debris whirling around it, called an accretion disc, is spinning in the same direction.