First Image of a Black Hole


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 is the first-ever image released of a black hole.

The picture was unveiled at simultaneous press conferences across the world on Wednesday, including one in Europe that you can watch in the video player, below.

What is a black hole?

Black holes are objects or regions of space that have collapsed in on themselves, which results in a huge amount of mass being concentrated in a very small area. Their gravity is so strong it pulls in everything around it, including light.

There are two types of black holes, the garden-variety black holes, which are 20 times bigger than the sun and the supermassive black holes. which are at least a million times bigger.

What black hole have scientists captured here?

The image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the constellation of Virgo. It is located 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times larger than our solar system’s sun.

How did this happen?

This major breakthrough was the result of an international scientific collaboration called Event Horizon Telescope.

They established a network of eight telescopes across the world, which then scanned the black hole over a period of 10 days.

The telescopes are located at challenging high-altitude sites, including in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona, the Chilean Atacama Desert, and Antarctica.

How is it possible to photograph a black hole?

The fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them difficult.

The scientists look for a ring of light — disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon — around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole.

This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.

What has been the reaction?

Sheperd S. Doeleman, EHT project director

“We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago. Breakthroughs in technology, connections between the world’s best radio observatories, and innovative algorithms all came together to open an entirely new window on black holes and the event horizon.”

Carlos Moedas, EU commissioner for science

“Fiction often inspires science, and black holes have long fueled our dreams and curiosity. Today, thanks to the contribution of European scientists, the existence of black holes is no longer just a theoretical concept. This amazing discovery proves again how working together with partners around the world can lead to achieving the unthinkable and moving the horizons of our knowledge.”


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 Hawai`i 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 synchronises telescope facilities around the world and exploits the rotation of our planet to form one huge, Earth-size telescope observing at a wavelength of 1.3mm. VLBI allows the EHT to achieve an angular resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds — enough to read a newspaper in New York from a café in Paris.

The telescopes contributing to this result were ALMAAPEX, the IRAM 30-meter telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano, the Submillimeter Array, the Submillimeter Telescope, and the South Pole Telescope. Petabytes of raw data from the telescopes were combined by highly specialised supercomputers hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory.

European facilities and funding played a crucial role in this worldwide effort, with the participation of advanced European telescopes and the support from the European Research Council — particularly a €14 million grant for the BlackHoleCam project. Support from ESO, IRAM and the Max Planck Society was also key. “This result builds on decades of European expertise in millimetre astronomy”, commented Karl Schuster, Director of IRAM and member of the EHT Board.

The construction of the EHT and the observations announced today represent the culmination of decades of observational, technical, and theoretical work. This example of global teamwork required close collaboration by researchers from around the world. 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.

More information

This research was presented in a series of six papers published today in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The EHT collaboration involves more than 200 researchers from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. The international collaboration is working to capture the most detailed black hole images ever by creating a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Supported by considerable international investment, the EHT links existing telescopes using novel systems — creating a fundamentally new instrument with the highest angular resolving power that has yet been achieved.

The individual telescopes involved are; ALMA, APEX, the IRAM 30-meter Telescope, the IRAM NOEMA Observatory, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), the Submillimeter Array (SMA), the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Kitt Peak Telescope, and the Greenland Telescope (GLT).

The EHT consortium consists of 13 stakeholder institutes; the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, the East Asian Observatory, Goethe-Universitaet Frankfurt, Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique, Large Millimeter Telescope, Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, MIT Haystack Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Radboud University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


Links

Contacts

Heino Falcke
Chair of the EHT Science Council, Radboud University
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 24 3652020
Email: h.falcke@astro.ru.nl

Luciano Rezzolla
EHT Board Member, Goethe Universität
Germany
Tel: +49 69 79847871
Email: rezzolla@itp.uni-frankfurt.de

Eduardo Ros
EHT Board Secretary, Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie
Germany
Tel: +49 22 8525125
Email: ros@mpifr.de

Calum Turner
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Email: pio@eso.org

Connect with ESO on social media


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