Astronomers have captured the first image of a black hole, proving the University of Canterbury's distinguished Professor Roy Kerr's 56-year-old theory correct.

The picture shows a halo of dust and gas, tracing the outline of a colossal black hole at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years from Earth and has been heralded as a revolution in our understanding of the universe's most enigmatic objects.

Kerr has since retired in Tauranga but it proves his theory of rotating black holes which he created more than 50 years ago.

The Royal Society of London described his work as of particular importance to general relativistic astrophysics, and all subsequent detailed work on black holes had depended fundamentally on it.

Scientists have captured the first direct image of a supermassive black hole. Photo / Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.
Scientists have captured the first direct image of a supermassive black hole. Photo / Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

Kerr said he set his alarm for 1am to see this exciting event.

"The event horizon telescope photo is just the beginning of a new phase in the understanding of our universe.

"The visual evidence will continue to get more and more sophisticated," he said.

"I was surprised that the best image was not Sagittarius A* (compact astronomical radio source) but was a supermassive black hole 2000 times further away, and 2000 times larger."

Back in 1963 before advanced computers existed Kerr achieved what had eluded others for nearly half a century with pen and paper - solving some of the most difficult equations of physics by hand.

He found the exact solution of Albert Einstein's equations that describe rotating black holes.

Kerr's discovery sparked a revolution in physics. At that time there was no consensus that such objects even existed as the term 'black hole' was only coined in 1967.

The 2016 discovery of gravitational waves (caused by colliding black holes) by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory was made possible by Kerr's solution.


University of Canterbury professor of physics David Wiltshire said he could now create a close-up image of light bending around a 6.5 billion solar mass black hole 22 million light years away.

"It is a great step forward for science.

"This discovery, like that of gravitational waves a few years ago, marks another important milestone in understanding the strong gravity of black holes.

"This means in future we will not only be able to learn more about the crucial role that supermassive black holes play in the life cycle and ecology of galaxies, but we will also be able to test the foundations of Einstein's theory of gravity in the most extreme regime possible."

He said more was coming in the next decade as technology caught up with general relativity just over 100 years after Einstein conceived it, and over 50 years since Kerr discovered its most important solution.

Graphic / NZHerald
Graphic / NZHerald