Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Black Hole Imaged For First Time By Event Horizon Telescope

Article Updated: 15 Apr , 2017
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For decades, scientists have held that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of larger galaxies. These reality-bending points in space exert a extremely powerful influence on all things that surround them, consuming matter and spitting out a tremendous amount of energy. But given their nature, all attempts to study them has been confined to indirect methods.

All of that changed beginning on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, when an international team of astronomers obtained the first-ever image of a Sagittarius A*. Using a series of telescopes from around the globe – collectively known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – they were able to visualize the  mysterious region around this giant black hole from which matter and energy cannot escape – i.e. the event horizon.

Not only is this the first time that this mysterious region around a black hole has been imaged, it is also the most extreme test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity ever attempted. It also represents the culmination of the EHT project, which was established specifically for the purpose of studying black holes directly and improving our understanding of them.

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke/Radboud University

Since it began capturing data in 2006, the EHT has been dedicated to the study of Sagitarrius A* since it is the nearest SMBH in the known Universe – located about 25,000 light years from Earth. Specifically, scientists hoped to determine if black holes are surrounded by a circular region from which matter and energy cannot escape (which is predicted by General Relativity), and how they accrete matter onto themselves.

Rather than constituting a single facility, the EHT relies on a worldwide network of radio astronomy facilities based on four continents, all of which are dedicated to studying one of the most powerful and mysterious forces in the Universe. This process, whereby widely-space radio dishes from across the globe are connected into an Earth-sized virtual telescope, is known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

As Michael Bremer – an astronomer at the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy (IRAM) and a project manager for the Event Horizon Telescope – said in an interview with AFP:

“Instead of building a telescope so big that it would probably collapse under its own weight, we combined eight observatories like the pieces of a giant mirror. This gave us a virtual telescope as big as Earth—about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) is diameter.”

Sagittarius A is the super-massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. It is shown in x-ray (blue) and infrared (red) in this combined image from the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

Combined image of Sagittarius A shown in x-ray (blue) and infrared (red), provided by the Chandra Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

All told, the network includes instruments like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Arizona Radio Observatory Submillimeter Telescope, the IRAM 30-meter Telescope in Spain, the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano in Mexico, the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and Submillimeter Array at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

With these arrays, the EHT radio-dish network is the only one powerful enough to detect the light released when an object would disappear into Sagittarius A*. And from six nights – from Wednesday, April 5th, to Tuesday, April 11th, – all of its arrays were trained on the center of our Milky Way to do just that. By the end of the run, the international team announced that they had snapped the first-ever picture of an event horizon.

In the end, some 500 terabytes of data were collected. This data is now being transferred to the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts, where it will be processed by supercomputers and turned into an image. “For the first time in our history, we have the technological capacity to observe black holes in detail,” said Bremer. “The images will emerge as we combine all the data. But we’re going to have to wait several months for the result.”

Part of the reason for the wait is the fact that the recorded data obtained by the South Pole Telescope can only be collected when spring starts in Antarctica – which won’t happen until October 2017 at the earliest. As such, it won’t be until 2018 before the public gets to feast its eyes on the shadow region that surrounds Sagittarius A*, and it is not expected that the first image will be entirely clear.

As Heino Falcke – an astronomers from Radbound University who now chairs the Scientific Council of EHT (and was the one who proposed this experiment twenty years ago) – explained in a EHT press release prior to the observation being made:

“It is the challenge of doing something, that has never been attempted before. It is the start of an adventurous journey towards a black hole… However, I think we need more observation campaigns and eventually more telescopes in the network to make a really good image.”

Despite the wait, and the fact that repeated attempts will be needed before we can get our first clear look at a black hole, there is still plenty of reason to celebrate in the meantime. Not only was this a first that was a long time in he making, but it also represents a major leap towards understanding one of the most powerful and mysterious forces of nature.

Given time, the study of black holes may allow for us to finally resolve how gravity and the other fundamental forces of the Universe interact. At long last, we will be able to comprehend all of existence as a single, unified equation!

Further Reading: Event Horizon Telescope, NRAO

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8 Responses

  1. btraymd says:

    Please stop passing misinformation along as if it were fact.
    These massive structures at the centers of galaxies are not holes in anything. And they are not black either. NASA missions have shown that they emit plasma jets, visible light and intense gamma/xray radiation. This data directly refutes the standard model.
    Their structure depends upon unproven concepts you may choose to believe in such as singularities, accretion discs and dark matter/energy. The whole problem with the concept is that gravity is the driving force and that is so stupid it makes morons of otherwise intelligent men.
    A more intelligent model is that these galactic centers are massive plasmoids. This model is consistent with all observed data and does not require the breakdown of the known laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, it makes common sense.
    Anthony Peratt (Los Alamos) showed that gravity, no matter how exaggerated, could not account for galaxy formation and function. His models showed perfect spiral galaxy formation and function using only magnetic fields, plasma and electric current. His results have been replicated in every plasma physics lab in the nation. Yet cosmologists ignored this evidence in favor of dark matter, then dark energy, then black holes, then singularities, then accretion discs and on and on….only .Jules Verne would be proud. The standard model now consists of unobserved, unconfirmed, illogical ideas that require the breakdown of all known laws of physics and chemistry.
    It is so absurd that it requires an equally absurd explanation for it’s existence. The U.S. government wants to conceal the true electromagnetic nature of the universe. This way they can sell the electricity which Tesla wanted to give to everyone for free. And we all know what happened to him, pretty scary.
    The whole situation is so perverted I challenge anyone, including Stephen Hawkings to support their position in the face of the newest NASA radio telescope data.
    My phone number is 412 628 8900 and I will be happy to listen to any one that feels I am missing something.

    • Nexus says:

      You sound like a crackpot, frantically waving his hands in a desperate attempt to distract readers from astronomical observations that have obliterated your world view once and for all, without any hope of recovery.

      Because that is what you are.

    • If you don’t like the real science articles published here, you should stop coming here in favor of, say , The Enterprise Mission site with Dick Hoagland. We don’t go there, so take our lead in future, friend.

  2. Tonio says:

    “…dedicated to the study of Sagitarrius A* since it is the nearest SMBH in the known Universe – located about 25,000 light years from Earth”

    Is that correct? I believe we are a little bit further away from it.

    • It’s an rough estimate (hence why I added “about”). The actual estimates place it at an average of either 25636 to 25897, but that with some generous pluses or minuses.

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