“We live 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. That’s a rounding error by cosmological standards, but still — it’s far. When the light now reaching Earth from the galactic center first took flight, people were crossing the Bering Strait land bridge, hunting woolly mammoths along the way.
“The distance hasn’t stopped astronomers from drawing a fairly accurate map of the heart of the galaxy. We know that if you travel inbound from Earth at the speed of light for about 20,000 years, you’ll encounter the galactic bulge, a peanut-shaped structure thick with stars, some nearly as old as the universe. Several thousand light-years farther in, there’s Sagittarius B2, a cloud a thousand times the size of our solar system containing silicon, ammonia, doses of hydrogen cyanide, at least ten billion billion billion liters of alcohol and dashes of ethyl formate, which tastes like raspberries. Continue inward for another 390 light-years or so and you reach the inner parsec, the bizarro zone within about three light-years of the galactic center. Tubes of frozen lightning called cosmic filaments streak the sky. Bubbles of gas memorialize ancient star explosions. Gravity becomes a foaming sea of riptides. Blue stars that make our sun look like a marble go slingshotting past at millions of miles per hour. Space becomes a bath of radiation; atoms dissolve into a fog of subatomic particles. And near the core, that fog forms a great glowing Frisbee that rotates around a vast dark sphere. This is the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way, the still point of our slowly rotating galaxy. We call it Sagittarius A*….
“Astronomical images have a way of putting terrestrial concerns in perspective. Headlines may portend the collapse of Western civilization, but the black hole doesn’t care. It has been there for most of cosmic history; it will witness the death of the universe. In a time of lies, a picture of our own private black hole would be something true. The effort to get that picture speaks well of our species: a bunch of people around the world defying international discord and general ascendant stupidity in unified pursuit of a gloriously esoteric goal. And in these dark days, it’s only fitting that the object of this pursuit is the darkest thing imaginable.
“Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist who works with the Event Horizon Telescope, said in 2014 that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as ‘Pale Blue Dot,’ the 1990 photo of Earth that the space probe Voyager took from the rings of Saturn, in which our planet is an insignificant speck in a vast vacuum. A new picture, Avery thought, of one of nature’s purest embodiments of chaos and existential unease would have a different message: It would say, There are monsters out there.”
—“How Do You Take a Picture of a Black Hole? With a Telescope as Big as the Earth,” Seth Fletcher