On Wednesday, scientists revealed the first-ever image of a black hole. The supermassive cosmic object, 6.5 billion times larger than our sun, warps spacetime. Any nearby material becomes super-heated in its presence. If you stumbled across the event horizon point—at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy (known as M87), 55 million light-years from Earth—and somehow fell in, your body would be ripped apart until it was "spaghettified." All told, this supermassive black hole is a big space(time) suck—literally, for dust and gas (although black holes don't actually suction; they act more like, well, holes).
But how much cash has been poured into this cosmic receptacle?
The image itself came out of an international collaboration between about 250 scientists, called the Event Horizon Telescope project. For six years, professors from several universities partnered with international research organizations and observatories to create an instrument capable of measuring emission regions on two supermassive black holes. They announced their results this week at two press conferences and in six papers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Imaging a supermassive black hole takes a massive amount of funding; the EHT program lists its "key funders" as the United States' National Science Foundation, the European Union's European Research Council, and funding agencies in East Asia. According to a statement from the European Commission, the ERC funded three of the leading scientists and their teams. It's also the primary sponsor of the $15.7 million BlackHoleCam project, whose investigators partnered with the EHT team to measure and finally capture the M87's black hole.
Starting in October of 2014, the ERC said it gave the team 13,975,744 euros—about $19.3 million—for the BlackHoleCam. (For context: Congress' budget bill gave $21.5 billion to NASA in 2019, NASA estimated in 2016 that it would need about $300 million to fund SpaceX's Mars mission, and President Donald Trump's border wall would cost around $5.7 billion.)
BlackHoleCam researcher Luciano Rezzolla, from Goethe University Frankfurt, mentioned his funders in an interview with Horizon, a European Union research magazine. "Our view was that funding this would allow us to take the first picture of a black hole and this picture would go in every textbook," he said. "I hope this is what's going to happen. Now we know what a black hole looks like."
There's a reason why "knowing what a black hole looks like" is so important—and expensive. EHT researchers say the project was "a formidable challenge." In order to image the black hole, they had to upgrade and connect eight telescopes stationed in high-altitude places across the world, including volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Chilean Atacama Desert, and Antarctica. They relied on decades of modeling and theoretical work to prove Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity right, again.
"We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago," EHT project director Sheperd Doeleman said in a statement. "Breakthroughs in technology, connections between the world's best radio observatories, and innovative algorithms all came together to open an entirely new window on black holes and the event horizon."
For those who seem to be disappointed with the results of such an investment, the research team has said that more images, including "razor-sharp" ones, are on their way: According to a page on the EHT website, "obtaining sharp images of the black hole event horizon is very challenging." Already, it boasts that the resolution is akin to "counting individual dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles ... from New York."