First-Ever Image of a Black Hole to be Captured by Earth-Sized Scope


“Sgr A* is the right object, VLBI is the right technique, and this decade is the right time.”

So states the mission page of the Event Horizon Telescope, an international endeavor that will combine the capabilities of over 50 radio telescopes across the globe to create a single Earth-sized telescope to image the enormous black hole at the center of our galaxy. For the first time, astronomers will “see” one of the most enigmatic objects in the Universe.

And tomorrow, January 18, researchers from around the world will convene in Tucson, AZ to discuss how to make this long-standing astronomical dream a reality.

During a conference organized by Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and Dan Marrone, an assistant professor of astronomy at the Steward Observatory, astrophysicists, scientists and researchers will gather to coordinate the ultimate goal of the Event Horizon Telescope; that is, an image of Sgr A*’s accretion disk and the “shadow” of its event horizon.

“Nobody has ever taken a picture of a black hole. We are going to do just that.”

– Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory

Sgr A* (pronounced as “Sagittarius A-star”) is a supermassive black hole residing at the center of the Milky Way. It is estimated to contain the equivalent mass of 4 million Suns, packed into an area smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit.

Because of its proximity and estimated mass, Sgr A* presents the largest apparent event horizon size of any black hole candidate in the Universe. Still, its size in the sky is about the same as viewing “a grapefruit on the Moon.”

So what are astronomers expecting to actually “see”?

(Read more: What does a black hole look like?)

A black hole's "shadow", or event horizon. (NASA illustration)

Because black holes by definition are black – that is, invisible in all wavelengths of radiation due to the incredibly powerful gravitational effect on space-time around them – an image of the black hole itself will be impossible. But Sgr A*’s accretion disk should be visible to radio telescopes due to its billion-degree temperatures and powerful radio (as well as submillimeter, near infrared and X-ray) emissions… especially in the area leading up to and just at its event horizon. By imaging the glow of this super-hot disk astronomers hope to define Sgr A*’s Schwarzschild radius – its gravitational “point of no return”.

This is also commonly referred to as its shadow.

The position and existence of Sgr A* has been predicted by physics and inferred by the motions of stars around the galactic nucleus. And just last month a giant gas cloud was identified by researchers with the European Southern Observatory, traveling directly toward Sgr A*’s accretion disk. But, if the EHT project is successful, it will be the first time a black hole will be directly imaged in any shape or form.

“So far, we have indirect evidence that there is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way,” said Dimitrios Psaltis. “But once we see its shadow, there will be no doubt.”

(Read more: Take a trip into our galaxy’s core)

Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham, AZ. (Used with permission from University of Arizona, T. W. Folkers, photographer.)

The ambitious Event Horizon Telescope project will use not just one telescope but rather a combination of over 50 radio telescopes around the world, including the Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California, as well as several radio telescopes in Europe, a 10-meter dish at the South Pole and, if all goes well, the 50-radio-antenna capabilities of the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. This coordinated group effort will, in effect, turn our entire planet into one enormous dish for collecting radio emissions.

By using long-term observations with Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) at short (230-450 GHz) wavelengths, the EHT team predicts that the goal of imaging a black hole will be achieved within the next decade.

“What is great about the one in the center of the Milky Way is that is big enough and close enough,” said assistant professor Dan Marrone. “There are bigger ones in other galaxies, and there are closer ones, but they’re smaller. Ours is just the right combination of size and distance.”

Read more about the Tucson conference on the University of Arizona’s news site here, and visit the Event Horizon Telescope project site here.


Looking Into The Eye Of A Monster – Active Galaxy Markarian 509


“The world is a vampire, sent to drain… Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames…” Ah, yes. It’s the biggest vampire of all – the supermassive black hole. In this instance, it’s not any average, garden-variety black hole, but one that’s 300 million times the mass of the Sun and growing. Bullet with butterfly wings? No. This is more a case of butterfly wings with bullets.

An international team of astronomers using five different telescopes set their sites on 460 million light-year distant Markarian 509 to check out the action surrounding its huge black hole. The imaging team included ESA’s XMM-Newton, Integral, NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Chandra and Swift satellites, and the ground-based telescopes WHT and PARITEL. For a hundred days they monitored Markarian 509. Why? Because it is known to have brightness variations which could mean turbulent inflow. In turn, the inner radiation then drives an outflow of gas – faster than a speeding bullet.

“XMM-Newton really led these observations because it has such a wide X-ray coverage, as well as an optical monitoring camera,” says Jelle Kaastra, SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, who coordinated an international team of 26 astronomers from 21 institutes on four continents to make these observations.

And the vampire reared its ugly head. Instead of the previously documented 25% changes, it jumped to 60%. The hot corona surrounding the black hole was spattering out cold gas “bullets” at speeds in excess of one million miles per hour. These projectiles are torn away from the dusty torus, but the real surprise is that they are coming from an area just 15 light years away from the center. This is a lot further than most astronomers speculate could happen.

“There has been a debate in astronomy for some time about the origin of the outflowing gas,” says Kaastra.

But there’s more than just bullets here. These new observations at multiple wavelengths are showing the coolest gas in the line of sight toward Markarian 509 has 14 different velocity components – all from different locations at the galaxy’s heart. What’s more, there’s indications the black hole accretion disc may have a shield of gas harboring temperatures ranging in the millions of degrees – the motivating force behind x-rays and gamma rays.

An artist's impression of the central engine of an active galaxy. A black hole is surrounded by matter waiting to fall in. Fearsome radiation from near the black hole drives an outflow of gas. Credits: NASA and M. Weiss (Chandra X-ray Center)

“The only way to explain this is by having gas hotter than that in the disc, a so-called ‘corona’, hovering above the disc,” Jelle Kaastra says. “This corona absorbs and reprocesses the ultraviolet light from the disc, energising it and converting it into X-ray light. It must have a temperature of a few million degrees. Using five space telescopes, which enabled us to observe the area in unprecedented detail, we actually discovered a very hot ‘corona’ of gas hovering above the disc. This discovery allows us to make sense of some of the observations of active galaxies that have been hard to explain so far.”

To make things even more entertaining, the study has also found the signature of interstellar gas which may have been the result of a one-time galaxy collision. Although the evidence may be hundreds of thousands of light years away from Mrk 509, it may have initially triggered this activity.

“The results underline how important long-term observations and monitoring campaigns are to gain a deeper understanding of variable astrophysical objects. XMM-Newton made all the necessary organisational changes to enable such observations, and now the effort is paying off,” says Norbert Schartel, ESA XMM-Newton Project Scientist.

Ah, Markarian 509… “Despite all my rage… I am still just a rat in cage.”

Original Story Source: ESA News. For Further Reading: Multiwavelength Campaign on Mrk 509 VI. HST/COS Observations of the Far-ultraviolet Spectrum.

All-Sky Radio Image in 60 Seconds, No Moving Parts

This image is a software-calibrated image with high signal-to-noise ratio at a frequency of 120 MHz, of the radio sky above Effelsberg, Germany, on November10, 2009. It has North at the top and East at the left, just as a person would have seen the entire sky when lying on their back on a flat field near Effelsberg late in the afternoon on November 10, if their eyes were sensitive to radio waves.

The two bright (yellow) spots are Cygnus A – a giant radio galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole – near the center of the image, and Cassiopeia A – a bright radio source created by a supernova explosion about 300 years ago – at the upper-left in the image. The plane of our Milky Way galaxy can also be seen passing by both Cassiopeia A and Cygnus A, and extending down to the bottom of the image. The North Polar Spur, a large cloud of radio emission within our own galaxy, can also be seen extending from the direction of the Galactic center in the South, toward the western horizon in this image. “We made this image with a single 60 second “exposure” at 120 MHz using our high-band LOFAR field in Effelsberg”, says James Anderson, project manager of the Effelsberg LOFAR station.

“The ability to make all-sky images in just seconds is a tremendous advancement compared to existing radio telescopes which often require weeks or months to scan the entire sky,” Anderson went on. This opens up exciting possibilities to detect and study rapid transient phenomena in the universe.

LOFAR, the LOw Frequency ARray, was designed and developed by ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy) with 36 stations centered on Exloo in the northeast of The Netherlands. It is now an international project with stations being built in Germany, France, the UK and Sweden connected to the central data processing facilities in Groningen (NL) and the ASTRON operations center in Dwingeloo (NL). The first international LOFAR station (IS-DE1) was completed on the area of the Effelsberg radio observatory next to the 100-m radio telescope of the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR).

Operating at relatively low radio frequencies from 10 to 240 MHz, LOFAR has essentially no moving parts to track objects in the sky; instead digital electronics are used to combine signals from many small antennas to electronically steer observations on the sky. In certain electronic modes, the signals from all of the individual antennas can be combined to make images of the entire radio sky visible above the horizon.

IS-DE1: Some of the 96 low-band dipole antennas, Effelsberg LOFAR station (foreground); high-band array (background) (Credit: James Anderson, MPIfR)

LOFAR uses two different antenna designs, to observe in two different radio bands, the so-called low-band from 10 to 80 MHz, and the high-band from 110 to 240 MHz. All-sky images using the low-band antennas at Effelsberg were made in 2007.

Following the observation for the first high-band, all-sky image, scientists at MPIfR made a series of all-sky images covering a wide frequency range using both the low-band and high-band antennas at Effelsberg.

Effelsberg sky through LOFAR eyes (Credit: James Anderson, MPIfR)

The movie of these all-sky images has been compiled and is shown above. The movie starts at a frequency of 35 MHz, and each subsequent frame is about 4 MHz higher in frequency, through 190 MHz. The resolution of the Effelsberg LOFAR telescope changes with frequency. At 35 MHz the resolution is about 10 degrees, at 110 MHz it is about 3.4 degrees, and at 190 MHz it is about 1.9 degrees. This change in resolution can be seen by the apparent size of the two bright sources Cygnus A and Cassiopeia A as the frequency changes.

Scientists at MPIfR and other institutions around Europe will use measurements such as these to study the large-sky structure of the interstellar matter of our Milky Way galaxy. The low frequencies observed by LOFAR are ideal for studying the low energy cosmic ray electrons in the Milky Way, which trace out magnetic field structures through synchrotron emission. Other large-scale features such as supernova remnants, star-formation regions, and even some other nearby galaxies will need similar measurements from individual LOFAR telescopes to provide accurate information on the large-scale emission in these objects. “We plan to search for radio transients using the all-sky imaging capabilities of the LOFAR telescopes”, says Michael Kramer, director at MPIfR, in Bonn. “The detection of rapidly variable sources using LOFAR could lead to exciting discoveries of new types of astronomical objects, similar to the discoveries of pulsars and gamma-ray bursts in the past decades.”

“The low-frequency sky is now truly open in Effelsberg and we have the capability at the observatory to observe in a wide frequency range from 10 MHz to 100 GHz”, says Anton Zensus, also director at MPIfR. “Thus we can cover four orders of magnitude in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Source: Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie

Supermassive Black Holes Spinning Backwards Create Death Ray Jets?

Why do some of the supermassive black holes in active galactic nuclei create back-to-back jets that can vaporize entire solar systems, while others have no jets at all?

Dan Evans, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) thinks he knows why; it’s because the jet-producing supermassive black holes are spinning backwards, relative to their accretion disks.

Radio image of a typical DRAGN, showing the main features (Image credit:C. L. Carilli)

For two years, Evans has been comparing several dozen galaxies whose black holes host powerful jets (these galaxies are known as radio-loud active galactic nuclei, or AGN, and are often DRAGNs – double radio source associated with galactic nucleus) to those galaxies with supermassive black holes that do not eject jets. All black holes – those with and without jets – feature accretion disks, the clumps of dust and gas rotating just outside the event horizon. By examining the light reflected in the accretion disk of an AGN black hole, he concluded that jets may form right outside black holes that have a retrograde spin – or which spin in the opposite direction from their accretion disk. Although Evans and a colleague recently hypothesized that the gravitational effects of black hole spin may have something to do with why some have jets, Evans now has observational results to support the theory in a paper published in the Feb. 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Although Evans has suspected for nearly five years that retrograde black holes with jets are missing the innermost portion of their accretion disk, it wasn’t until last year that computational advances meant that he could analyze data collected between late 2007 and early 2008 by the Suzaku observatory, a Japanese satellite launched in 2005 with collaboration from NASA, to provide an example to support the theory. With these data, Evans and colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Yale University, Keele University and the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom analyzed the spectra of the active galactic nucleus with a pair of jets located about 800 million light years away in an AGN named 3C 33.

1477 MHz image of 3C 33 (Credit: Leahy & Perley (1991))

“It’s the first convincing galaxy of this type seen at this angle where the result is pretty robust,” said Patrick Ogle, an assistant research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, who studies AGN. Ogle believes Evans’s theory regarding retrograde spin is among the best explanations he has heard for why some AGN contain a supermassive black hole with a jet and others don’t.

Astrophysicists can see the signatures of x-ray emission from the inner regions of the accretion disk, which is located close to the edge of a black hole, as a result of a super hot atmospheric ring called a corona that lies above the disk and emits light (electromagnetic radiation) that an observatory like Suzaku can detect. In addition to this direct light, a fraction of light passes down from the corona onto the black hole’s accretion disk and is reflected from the disk’s surface, resulting in a spectral signature pattern called the Compton reflection hump, also detected by Suzaku.

But Evans’ team never found a Compton reflection hump in the x-ray emission given off by 3C 33, a finding the researchers believe provides crucial evidence that the accretion disk for a black hole with a jet is truncated, meaning it doesn’t extend as close to the center of the black hole with a jet as it does for a black hole that does not have a jet. The absence of this innermost portion of the disk means that nothing can reflect the light from the corona, which explains why observers only see a direct spectrum of x-ray light.

The researchers believe the absence may result from retrograde spin, which pushes out the orbit of the innermost portion of accretion material as a result of general relativity, or the gravitational pull between masses. This absence creates a gap between the disk and the center of the black hole that leads to the piling of magnetic fields that provide the force to fuel a jet.

While Ogle believes that the retrograde spin theory is a good explanation for Evans’ observations, he said it is far from being confirmed, and that it will take more examples with consistent results to convince the astrophysical community.

The field of research will expand considerably in August 2011 with the planned launch of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite, which is 10 to 50 times more sensitive to spectra and the Compton reflection hump than current technology. NuSTAR will help researchers conduct a “giant census” of supermassive black holes that “will absolutely revolutionize the way we look at X-ray spectra of AGN,” Evans explained. He plans to spend another two years comparing black holes with and without jets, hoping to learn more about the properties of AGN. His goal over the next decade is to determine how the spin of a supermassive black hole evolves over time.

Sources: MITnews, Evans’ Astrophysical Journal paper (preprint is arXiv:1001.0588)