Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the light as emanating from within a black hole, rather than beside it. Corrections have been made to reflect this small but important distinction.
In the epitomizing blackness of space, few natural phenomena can compete with the darkness of black holes. After all, with their inexorable gravitational pull, nothing, not even light, can be seen … right? Well, mostly. Last week, for the first time ever, scientists observed visible light emanating from beside a black hole with nothing more than a 20 cm. telescope.
Apparently, the rather beautiful phenomena occurs when, as the Guardian explains, “material from surrounding space falls into them and releases violent bursts of light.” Essentially, when some matter is sucked into one of these massive pits of gravity, they emit an incredible amount of energy, which can manifest itself as light. When this happens, it looks like we’re seeing light coming out of a black hole.
Back in June of 2015, a team of scientists led by Mariko Kimura of Kyoto University, became the first to ever see this sort of light through a telescope when a black hole named V404 Cygni, one of the closest to planet Earth, began showing activity after lying dormant for 26 years. Around every six and a half days, Cygni and its partner star (a celestial body a bit smaller than the sun) would circle one another, and when the black hole came to life again, it began feasting on the star. For two weeks, the astronomers were able to see flashes of light — some lasting just minutes, while others continued for several hours — as Cygni worked its magic.
“We find that activity in the vicinity of a black hole can be observed in optical light at low luminosity for the first time,” researcher Mariko Kimura told . “These findings suggest that we can study physical phenomena that occur in the vicinity of the black hole using moderate optical telescopes without high-spec X-ray or gamma-ray telescopes.”