In the swirling heart of a distant galaxy, 55 million light-years from Earth, lies a supermassive black hole with a mass 6.5 billion times greater than that of our sun.
The gravitational pull of this dark beast in the Messier 87 galaxy is so strong that not even light can escape its gaping maw.
Its powerful gravity bends the fabric of space and time around it, and causes nearby stars to dance like planets.
Gas and dust spin and churn as they hurtle into its abyss. Matter around it moves so fast that it gets superheated to hundreds of millions of degrees, sending powerful jets of radiation shooting across the cosmos.
And now, scientists have captured an image of the very edge of this object, a region known as the event horizon, beyond which nothing can hope to return.
It is the first picture ever taken of a black hole.
The effort to photograph it required an international team of 200 scientists and a virtual Earth-sized radio telescope to collect the necessary data. Then it took two more years of supercomputer processing and analysis to ensure that no errors were made.
"Making an image of a black hole doesn't come easily, as many people can tell you," said Shep Doeleman, an astrophysicist at Harvard University and project director of the global endeavor known as the Event Horizon Telescope. "But we consider ourselves to be explorers. We exposed a part of the universe that had never been seen before."
The breakthrough image, along with six papers describing the black hole, were published Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Astronomers who study the most extreme environments in space say the hard work was worth it.