An international team of astronomers has obtained the closest views ever of what is believed to be a super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The astronomers linked together radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona and California to create a virtual telescope more than 2,800 miles across that is capable of seeing details more than 1,000 times finer than the Hubble Space Telescope. The target of the observations was the source known as Sagittarius A* (“A-star”), long thought to mark the position of a black hole whose mass is 4 million times that of the sun.
Using a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), the astronomers studied the radio waves coming from Sagittarius A*. In VLBI, signals from multiple astronomy telescopes are combined to create the equivalent of a single giant telescope, as large as the separation between the facilities. As a result, VLBI yields exquisitely sharp resolution.
They detected structure at a tiny angular scale of 37 micro-arcseconds – the equivalent of a baseball seen on the surface of the moon, 240,000 miles distant. These observations are among the highest resolution ever done in astronomy.
“This technique gives us an unmatched view of the region near the Milky Way’s central black hole,” said Sheperd Doeleman of MIT, first author of the study that will be published in the Sept. 4 issue of the journal Nature.
Though Sagittarius A* was discovered three decades ago, the new observations for the first time have an angular resolution, or ability to observe small details, that is matched to the size of the black hole “event horizon” â€” the region inside of which nothing, including light, can ever escape.
With three telescopes, the astronomers could only vaguely determine the shape of the emitting region. Future investigations will help answer the question of what, precisely, they are seeing: a glowing corona around the black hole, an orbiting “hot spot,” or a jet of material. Nevertheless, their result represents the first time that observations have gotten down to the scale of the black hole itself, which has a “Schwarzschild radius” of 10 million miles.
The concept of black holes, objects so dense that their gravitational pull prevents anything including light itself from ever escaping their grasp, has long been hypothesized, but their existence has not yet been proved conclusively. Astronomers study black holes by detecting the light emitted by matter that heats up as it is pulled closer to the event horizon. By measuring the size of this glowing region at the Milky Way center, the new observations have revealed the highest density yet for the concentration of matter at the center of our galaxy, which “is important new evidence supporting the existence of black holes,” said Doeleman.
“This result, which is remarkable in and of itself, also confirms that the 1.3-mm VLBI technique has enormous potential, both for probing the galactic center and for studying other phenomena at similar small scales,” said co-author Jonathan Weintroub.
The team plans to expand their work by developing novel instrumentation to make more sensitive 1.3-mm observations possible. They also hope to develop additional observing stations, which would provide additional baselines (pairings of two telescope facilities at different locations) to enhance the detail in the picture. Future plans also include observations at shorter, 0.85-mm wavelengths; however, such work will be even more challenging for many reasons, including stretching the capabilities of the instrumentation, and the requirement for a coincidence of excellent weather conditions at all sites.