Event Horizon Telescope captures first-ever image of a black hole

The image reveals the black hole at the center of M87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster.

Apr 11th, 2019
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IMAGE: Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. This long-sought image provides the strongest evidence to date for the existence of supermassive black holes and opens a new window onto the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity. (Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)--a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration--was designed to capture images of a black hole. Today, in coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers reveal that they have succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

This breakthrough was announced today in a series of six papers published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The image reveals the black hole at the center of Messier 87 (M87), a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun.

The EHT links telescopes around the globe to form an Earth-sized virtual telescope with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution. The EHT is the result of years of international collaboration and offers scientists a new way to study the most extreme objects in the Universe predicted by Einstein's general relativity during the centennial year of the historic experiment that first confirmed the theory.

Black holes are extraordinary cosmic objects with enormous masses but extremely compact sizes. The presence of these objects affects their environment in extreme ways, warping spacetime and super-heating any surrounding material.

Multiple calibration and imaging methods have revealed a ring-like structure with a dark central region--the black hole's shadow--that persisted over multiple independent EHT observations.

"Once we were sure we had imaged the shadow, we could compare our observations to extensive computer models that include the physics of warped space, superheated matter and strong magnetic fields. Many of the features of the observed image match our theoretical understanding surprisingly well," said Paul T.P. Ho, EHT board member and director of the East Asian Observatory. "This makes us confident about the interpretation of our observations, including our estimation of the black hole’s mass."

Creating the EHT was a formidable challenge which required upgrading and connecting a worldwide network of eight pre-existing telescopes deployed at a variety of challenging high-altitude sites. These locations included volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Chilean Atacama Desert, and Antarctica.

The EHT observations use a technique called very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) which synchronizes telescope facilities around the world and exploits the rotation of our planet to form one huge, Earth-size telescope observing at a wavelength of 1.3 mm. VLBI allows the EHT to achieve an angular resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds--enough to read a newspaper in New York from a sidewalk cafe in Paris.

Thirteen partner institutions worked together to create the EHT, using both pre-existing infrastructure and support from a variety of agencies. Key funding was provided by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the EU's European Research Council (ERC), and funding agencies in East Asia.

SOURCE: Event Horizon Telescope; https://eventhorizontelescope.org/

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