“We’ve been studying black holes so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us has actually seen one,” said France Córdova, the director of the National Science Foundation, which funded the effort to capture humanity’s first image of a black hole with the Event Horizon Telescope, actually 10 telescopes, linked across four continents in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and Antarctica, and designed to scan the cosmos in radio waves. For a few days in April 2017, the observatories studied the skies in tandem, creating a gargantuan telescope nearly the size of Earth.
“The gates of hell, the end of space and time.” That was how black holes were described at the press conference in Brussels where the first ever photograph was unveiled to an excited audience. And this black hole, a super-massive object at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87 shown above), really is a monster, observed Ellie Mae O’Hagan for The Guardian.
To test the global network of radio telescopes in the EHT array that’s 4,000 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope that captured the first image of the black hole in the galaxy M87, the Event Horizon Telescope team decided on two targets, each offering unique challenges.
The closest supermassive black hole to Earth, Sagittarius A*, interested the Event Horizon Telescope team because it is in our galactic backyard – at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, 26,000 light-years (156 quadrillion miles) away. (An asterisk is the astronomical standard for denoting a black hole.) Though not the only black hole in our galaxy, it is the black hole that appears largest from Earth. But its location in the same galaxy as Earth meant the team would have to look through “pollution” caused by stars and dust to image it, meaning there would be more data to filter out when processing the image. Nevertheless, because of the black hole’s local interest and relatively large size, the EHT team chose Sagittarius A* as one of its two targets.
The second target was the supermassive black hole M87*. One of the largest known supermassive black holes, M87* is located at the center of the gargantuan elliptical galaxy Messier 87, or M87, 53 million light-years (318 quintillion miles) away. Substantially more massive than Sagittarius A*, which contains 4 million solar masses, M87* contains 6.5 billion solar masses. One solar mass is equivalent to the mass of our Sun, approximately 2×10^30 kilograms.
In addition to its size, M87* interested scientists because, unlike Sagittarius A*, it is an active black hole, with matter falling into it and spewing out in the form of jets of particles that are accelerated to velocities near the speed of light. But its distance made it even more of a challenge to capture than the relatively local Sagittarius A*. As described by Katie Bouman, a computer scientist with the EHT who led development of one of the algorithms used to sort telescope data during the processing of the historic image, it’s akin to capturing an image of an orange on the surface of the Moon.
This zoom video above starts with a view of the ALMA telescope array in Chile and zooms in on the heart of M87, showing successively more detailed observations and culminating in the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole’s silhouette. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada, Digitized Sky Survey 2, ESA/Hubble, RadioAstron, De Gasperin et al., Kim et al., EHT Collaboration.
By 2017, the EHT was a collaboration of eight sites around the world – and more have been added since then. Before the team could begin collecting data, they had to find a time when the weather was likely to be conducive to telescope viewing at every location. For M87*, the team tried for good weather in April 2017 and, of the 10 days chosen for observation, a whopping four days were clear at all eight sites.
Each telescope used for the EHT had to be highly synchronized with the others to within a fraction of a millimeter using an atomic clock locked onto a GPS time standard. This degree of precision makes the EHT capable of resolving objects about 4,000 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.
As each telescope acquired data from the target black hole, the digitized data and time stamp were recorded on computer disk media. Gathering data for four days around the world gave the team a substantial amount of data to process. The recorded media were then physically transported to a central location because the amount of data, around 5 petabytes, exceeds what the current internet speeds can handle. At this central location, data from all eight sites were synchronized using the time stamps and combined to create a composite set of images, revealing the never-before-seen silhouette of M87*’s event horizon. The team is also working on generating an image of Sagittarius A* from additional observations made by the EHT.
As more telescopes are added and the rotation of Earth is factored in, more of the image can be resolved, and we can expect future images to be higher resolution. But we might never have a complete picture, as Caltech’s Katie Bouman explains here (under “Imaging a Black Hole”).
To complement the EHT findings, several NASA spacecraft were part of a large effort to observe the black hole using different wavelengths of light. As part of this effort, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory space telescope missions – all designed to detect different varieties of X-ray light – turned their gaze to the M87 black hole around the same time as the EHT in April 2017. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was also watching for changes in gamma-ray light from M87* during the EHT observations. If the EHT observed changes in the structure of the black hole’s environment, data from these missions and other telescopes could be used to help figure out what was going on.
Though NASA observations did not directly trace out the historic image, astronomers used data from Chandra and NuSTAR satellites to measure the X-ray brightness of M87*’s jet. Scientists used this information to compare their models of the jet and disk around the black hole with the EHT observations. Other insights may come as researchers continue to pore over these data.
One of the main results of the EHT black hole imaging project is a more direct calculation of a black hole’s mass than ever before. Using the EHT, scientists were able to directly observe and measure the radius of M87*’s event horizon, or its Schwarzschild radius, and compute the black hole’s mass. That estimate was close to the one derived from a method that uses the motion of orbiting stars – thus validating it as a method of mass estimation.
The size and shape of a black hole, which depend on its mass and spin, can be predicted from general relativity equations. General relativity predicts that this silhouette would be roughly circular, but other theories of gravity predict slightly different shapes. The image of M87* shows a circular silhouette, thus lending credibility to Einstein’s theory of general relativity near black holes.
The data also offer some insight into the formation and behavior of black hole structures, such as the accretion disk that feeds matter into the black hole and plasma jets that emanate from its center. Scientists have hypothesized about how an accretion disk forms, but they’ve never been able to test their theories with direct observation until now. Scientists are also curious about the mechanism by which some supermassive black holes emit enormous jets of particles traveling at near light-speed.
The image at the top of the page shows a smattering of orange stars against the black backdrop of space with a small black circle in the middle and a rectangle identifying the location of the M87 black hole.
The Daily Galaxy via JPL/Caltech