The Black Hole Officially Has A Name – Here's What It Means

The image on the left comes from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which spent 30,000 seconds watching the supermassive black hole at the center of Messier 87 during the April 2017 observing run by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The right image shows the close-up of the now-named black hole event. NASA/Chandra Observatory

Eight powerful telescopes here on Earth captured the world’s first image of a black hole some 54 million light-years away in what’s been dubbed one of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time. Now, the celestial event has a name, and let’s just say it’s as epic as the scientists who discovered it.

Pōwehi: "embellished dark source of unending creation". Fitting, right?

Astronomers collaborated with language professor Larry Kimura who named the black hole from an ancient Hawai'ian chant called Kumulipo whose earliest written record comes from an 18th-century document describing the creation of the universe.

"Kumulipo also consists of two words: kumu meaning the source, and lipo meaning darkness. So, literally the source of darkness," Kimura told IFLScience. "Pōwehi consists of two words, pō and wehi. That one little word, pō, has a very deep meaning, basically darkness that is very powerful and is endless in its creation power."

He added that pō means the darkness where the universe is created while wehi, or wehiwehi, means honored with embellishments.

"It was the immense power of the black hole, and its ability to pull in gases and light, that caused its discovery in a sense. Without this light, that image could not be possible," he said, adding that the gases, light, and dust that were absorbed by the black hole act as adornments and embellishments to its discovery.

Two of the eight telescopes that were used to identify Pōwehi are located on top of Maunakea on Hawai’i Island. Astronomers agreed that as such, a Hawai'ian name would be a fitting one.

NASA/Chandra Observatory

“Maunakea makes this discovery and the spectacular image of Pōwehi possible,” said Jessica Dempsey in a statement. Dempsey serves as the deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawai’i and is one of more than 200 scientists who worked to capture the image.

“Its perfect remote position and the dry conditions on Maunakea’s summit allow JCMT and the Submillimeter Array to collect the tiny amount of light that only touches our planet in a few very special places. Like the mountain itself, every drop of light we gather is precious.”

In April 2017, these eight telescopes from six locations around the world – together known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) consortium – pointed toward the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, in an effort to image the shadow of the event horizon of a supermassive black hole.  

In the two years that followed, astronomers and astrophysicists stitched together captured data to create the one depicting Pōwehi, which is not directly of the black hole itself but its shadow. (Black holes create such a strong gravity field that nothing, including visible light, can escape them. The image shows the black hole’s event horizon – a swirl of dust, stars, gas, and light that circles the edge of the hole before being sucked inside.)

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