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Capturing the Invisible: Astronomers Take First Image of Black Hole

| Editor: Alexander Stark

Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87.
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Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. (Bild: Event Horizon Telescope)

An international collaboration presented the first observations of a black hole. The stellar phenomenon is located at the heart of distant galaxy Messier 87. To achieve this breakthrough, the scientists used the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes.

Cambridge/USA — In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they have succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

The EHT links telescopes around the globe to form an Earth-sized virtual telescope with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution. This telescope 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.

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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.

Culmination of Decades of Work

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.

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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 1.3 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 café in Pari.

The telescopes contributing to this result were ALMA, APEX, 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.

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