Einstein. Right again

Most of what we know about black holes is based upon indirect evidence. General relativity predicts the structure of a black hole and how matter moves around it, and computer simulations based on relativity are compared with what we observe, from the accretion disks that swirl around a black hole to the immense jets of material they cast off at relativistic speeds. Then in 2019, radio astronomers captured the first direct image of the supermassive black hole in M87. This allows us to test the limits of relativity in a new and exciting way.

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The Shadow from M87’s Supermassive Black Hole has Been Observed Wobbling Around the Galaxy for Years

In April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) released the first direct image of a black hole. It was a radio image of the supermassive black hole in the galaxy M87. Much of the image resulted from radio light gravitationally focused toward us, but there was also some light emitted by gas and dust near the black hole. By itself, the image is a somewhat unimpressive blurry ring, but the data behind the image tells a more detailed story.

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How Researchers Produce Sharp Images of a Black Hole

In April of 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration history made history when it released the first image of a black hole ever taken. This accomplishment was decades in the making and triggered an international media circus. The picture was the result of a technique known as interferometry, where observatories across the world combined light from their telescopes to create a composite image.

This image showed what astrophysicists have predicted for a long time, that extreme gravitational bending causes photons to fall in around the event horizon, contributing to the bright rings that surround them. Last week, on March 18th, a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) announced new research that shows how black hole images could reveal an intricate substructure within them.

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There Could be Planets Orbiting Around Supermassive Black Holes

Perhaps the greatest discovery to come from the “Golden Age of General Relativity” (ca. 1960 to 1975) was the realization that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) exists at the center of our galaxy. In time, scientists came to realize that similarly massive black holes were responsible for the extreme amounts of energy emanating from the active galactic nuclei (AGNs) of distant quasars.

Given their sheer size, mass, and energetic nature, scientists have known for some time that some pretty awesome things take place beyond the event horizon of an SMBH. But according to a recent study by a team of Japanese researchers, it is possible that SMBHs can actually form a system of planets! In fact, the research team concluded that SMBHs can form planetary systems that would put our Solar System to shame!

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It’s Finally here. The First Ever Image of a Black Hole

We have taken the first picture of a black hole.

EHT project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

What was once un-seeable can now be seen. Black holes, those difficult-to-understand singularities that may reside at the center of every galaxy, are becoming seeable. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) has revealed the first-ever image of a black hole, and with this image, and all the science behind it, they may help crack open one of the biggest mysteries in the Universe.

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One of Our Best Views of the Supermassive Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way

Top left: simulation of Sgr A* at 86 GHz without interstellar scattering. Top right: simulation with interstellar scattering. Bottom right: observed image of Sgr A*. Bottom left: observed image of Sgr A* after removing the effects of interstellar scattering. Credit: S. Issaoun, M. Mo?cibrodzka, Radboud University/ M. D. Johnson, CfA

An almost unimaginably enormous black hole is situated at the heart of the Milky Way. It’s called a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH), and astronomers think that almost all massive galaxies have one at their center. But of course, nobody’s ever seen one (sort of, more on that later): It’s all based on evidence other than direct observation.

The Milky Way’s SMBH is called Sagittarius A* (Sgr. A*) and it’s about 4 million times more massive than the Sun. Scientists know it’s there because we can observe the effect it has on matter that gets too close to it. Now, we have one of our best views yet of Sgr. A*, thanks to a team of scientists using a technique called interferometry.

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Here’s What the First Images from the Event Horizon Might Look Like

Researchers using the Event Horizon Telescope hope to generate images like this of Sag. A's event horizon. Image Credit: EHT.

The largest object in our night sky—by far!—is invisible to us. The object is the Super-Massive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A. But soon we may have an image of Sagittarius A’s event horizon. And that image may pose a challenge to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

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Black Hole Imaged For First Time By Event Horizon Telescope

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

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

Get Ready for the First Pictures of a Black Hole’s Event Horizon

It might sound trite to say that the Universe is full of mysteries. But it’s true.

Chief among them are things like Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and of course, our old friends the Black Holes. Black Holes may be the most interesting of them all, and the effort to understand them—and observe them—is ongoing.

That effort will be ramped up in April, when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) attempts to capture our first image of a Black Hole and its event horizon. The target of the EHT is none other than Sagittarius A, the monster black hole that lies in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Though the EHT will spend 10 days gathering the data, the actual image won’t be finished processing and available until 2018.

The EHT is not a single telescope, but a number of radio telescopes around the world all linked together. The EHT includes super-stars of the astronomy world like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) as well as lesser known ‘scopes like the South Pole Telescope (SPT.) Advances in very-long-baseline-interferometry (VLBI) have made it possible to connect all these telescopes together so that they act like one big ‘scope the size of Earth.

The ALMA array in Chile. Once ALMA was added to the Event Horizon Telescope, it increased the EHT’s power by a factor of 10. Image: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), O. Dessibourg

The combined power of all these telescopes is essential because even though the EHT’s target, Sagittarius A, has over 4 million times the mass of our Sun, it’s 26,000 light years away from Earth. It’s also only about 20 million km across. Huge but tiny.

The EHT is impressive for a number of reasons. In order to function, each of the component telescopes is calibrated with an atomic clock. These clocks keep time to an accuracy of about a trillionth of a second per second. The effort requires an army of hard drives, all of which will be transported via jet-liner to the Haystack Observatory at MIT for processing. That processing requires what’s called a grid computer, which is a sort of virtual super-computer comprised of 800 CPUs.

But once the EHT has done its thing, what will we see? What we might see when we finally get this image is based on the work of three big names in physics: Einstein, Schwarzschild, and Hawking.

A simulation of what the EHT might show us. Image: Event Horizon Telescope Organization

As gas and dust approach the black hole, they speed up. They don’t just speed up a little, they speed up a lot, and that makes them emit energy, which we can see. That would be the crescent of light in the image above. The black blob would be a shadow cast over the light by the hole itself.

Einstein didn’t exactly predict the existence of Black Holes, but his theory of general relativity did. It was the work of one of his contemporaries, Karl Schwarzschild, that actually nailed down how a black hole might work. Fast forward to the 1970s and the work of Stephen Hawking, who predicted what’s known as Hawking Radiation.

Taken together, the three give us an idea of what we might see when the EHT finally captures and processes its data.

Einstein’s general relativity predicted that super massive stars would warp space-time enough that not even light could escape them. Schwarzschild’s work was based on Einstein’s equations and revealed that black holes will have event horizons. No light emitted from inside the event horizon can reach an outside observer. And Hawking Radiation is the theorized black body radiation that is predicted to be released by black holes.

The power of the EHT will help us clarify our understanding of black holes enormously. If we see what we think we’ll see, it confirms Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, a theory which has been confirmed observationally over and over. If EHT sees something else, something we didn’t expect at all, then that means Einstein’s General Relativity got it wrong. Not only that, but it means we don’t really understand gravity.

In physics circles they say that it’s never smart to bet against Einstein. He’s been proven right time and time again. To find out if he was right again, we’ll have to wait until 2018.