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The first image of a black hole Photo: The Event Horizon Telescope

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This is how the real photo of a black hole stacks up to artists’ impressions

Not bad, considering

Until recently, the only way to picture a black hole was to imagine what that incredibly dense object might look like or take a look at a talented artist’s interpretation. Now, thanks to a worldwide effort involving hundreds of researchers and eight telescopes spread across five continents, the research community finally has an actual snapshot of a black hole, pictured in silhouette. The image is of the black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87, which is around 55 million light-years away from Earth.

The image is thrilling — if a little fuzzy — but how does it hold up to the meticulously crafted images created by both artists and computers in the BBH (Before Black Hole) era? To be quite honest, it doesn’t really have some of the panache, color, or bright detail as the imagined versions. But it does have a black hole, and really, what more could we want?

Still, while we wait for more telescopes to come online and more photographs to be taken, it’s fun to take a look at how we’ve envisioned these cosmic phenomena in the past. Enjoy these five classic illustrations while we wait for the next picture to wow us all.

A computer-generated image of what researchers thought a black hole at the center of a galaxy might look like,
Image: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI)
Black holes don’t play well with others. In this computer-generated image, a black hole (top left) tears apart a star.
Image: NASA, S. Gezari (The Johns Hopkins University), and J. Guillochon (University of California, Santa Cruz)
An artist’s impression of a black hole with matter swirling around it in an accretion disc.
Image: NASA, and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)
An artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole. The spiraling orange matter represents an accretion disc, while the column in the center shows a jet of charged plasma, like the one researchers have observed coming out of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87.
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech
A different interpretation of a star being torn apart by a black hole.
Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
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