Astronomers Capture First Image of a Black Hole

Image: Artist’s impression of the Black Hole at the heart of M87. This artist’s impression depicts the black hole at the heart of the enormous elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87). This black hole was chosen as the object of paradigm-shifting observations by the Event Horizon Telescope. The superheated material surrounding the black hole is shown, as is the relativistic jet launched by M87’s black hole. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

ESO, ALMA, and APEX contribute to paradigm-shifting observations of the gargantuan black hole at the heart of the galaxy Messier 87

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.


SulutPos.com, Garching bei München, Germany – 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 centre of Messier 87 [1], 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 [2].

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. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the centre of Messier 87 and its shadow. The shadow of a black hole seen here is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across. While this may sound large, this ring is only about 40 microarcseconds across — equivalent to measuring the length of a credit card on the surface of the Moon. Although the telescopes making up the EHT are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration. Credit: EHT Collaboration
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. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the centre of Messier 87 and its shadow.
The shadow of a black hole seen here is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across. While this may sound large, this ring is only about 40 microarcseconds across — equivalent to measuring the length of a credit card on the surface of the Moon.
Although the telescopes making up the EHT are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration. Credit: EHT Collaboration

The EHT links telescopes around the globe to form an unprecedented Earth-sized virtual telescope [3]. The EHT offers scientists a new way to study the most extreme objects in the Universe predicted by Einstein’s general relativity during the centenary year of the historic experiment that first confirmed the theory [4].

We have taken the first picture of a black hole,” said EHT project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.

Messier 87 Captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Messier 87 (M87) is an enormous elliptical galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth, visible in the constellation Virgo. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781, but not identified as a galaxy until 20th Century. At double the mass of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and containing as many as ten times more stars, it is amongst the largest galaxies in the local universe. Besides its raw size, M87 has some very unique characteristics. For example, it contains an unusually high number of globular clusters: while our Milky Way contains under 200, M87 has about 12,000, which some scientists theorise it collected from its smaller neighbours. Just as with all other large galaxies, M87 has a supermassive black hole at its centre. The mass of the black hole at the centre of a galaxy is related to the mass of the galaxy overall, so it shouldn’t be surprising that M87’s black hole is one of the most massive known. The black hole also may explain one of the galaxy’s most energetic features: a relativistic jet of matter being ejected at nearly the speed of light. The black hole was the object of paradigm-shifting observations by the Event Horizon Telescope. The EHT chose the object as the target of its observations for two reasons. While the EHT’s resolution is incredible, even it has its limits. As more massive black holes are also larger in diameter, M87's central black hole presented an unusually large target—meaning that it could be imaged more easily than smaller black holes closer by. The other reason for choosing it, however, was decidedly more Earthly. M87 appears fairly close to the celestial equator when viewed from our planet, making it visible in most of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This maximised the number of telescopes in the EHT that could observe it, increasing the resolution of the final image. This image was captured by FORS2 on ESO’s Very Large Telescope as part of the Cosmic Gems programme, an outreach initiative that uses ESO telescopes to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects for the purposes of education and public outreach. The programme makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations, and  produces breathtaking images of some of the most striking objects in the night sky. In case the data collected could be useful for future scientific purposes, these observations are saved and made available to astronomers through the ESO Science Archive. Credit: ESO
Messier 87 Captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Messier 87 (M87) is an enormous elliptical galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth, visible in the constellation Virgo. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781, but not identified as a galaxy until 20th Century. At double the mass of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and containing as many as ten times more stars, it is amongst the largest galaxies in the local universe. Besides its raw size, M87 has some very unique characteristics. For example, it contains an unusually high number of globular clusters: while our Milky Way contains under 200, M87 has about 12,000, which some scientists theorise it collected from its smaller neighbours.
Just as with all other large galaxies, M87 has a supermassive black hole at its centre. The mass of the black hole at the centre of a galaxy is related to the mass of the galaxy overall, so it shouldn’t be surprising that M87’s black hole is one of the most massive known. The black hole also may explain one of the galaxy’s most energetic features: a relativistic jet of matter being ejected at nearly the speed of light.
The black hole was the object of paradigm-shifting observations by the Event Horizon Telescope. The EHT chose the object as the target of its observations for two reasons. While the EHT’s resolution is incredible, even it has its limits. As more massive black holes are also larger in diameter, M87’s central black hole presented an unusually large target—meaning that it could be imaged more easily than smaller black holes closer by. The other reason for choosing it, however, was decidedly more Earthly. M87 appears fairly close to the celestial equator when viewed from our planet, making it visible in most of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This maximised the number of telescopes in the EHT that could observe it, increasing the resolution of the final image.
This image was captured by FORS2 on ESO’s Very Large Telescope as part of the Cosmic Gems programme, an outreach initiative that uses ESO telescopes to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects for the purposes of education and public outreach. The programme makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations, and  produces breathtaking images of some of the most striking objects in the night sky. In case the data collected could be useful for future scientific purposes, these observations are saved and made available to astronomers through the ESO Science Archive. Credit: ESO

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 superheating any surrounding material.

If immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow — something predicted by Einstein’s general relativity that we’ve never seen before,” explained chair of the EHT Science Council Heino Falcke of Radboud University, the Netherlands. “This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and has allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87’s black hole.

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.

ALMA. High on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), together with its international partners, is operating the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — a state-of-the-art telescope to study light from some of the coldest objects in the Universe. This light has wavelengths of around a millimetre, between infrared light and radio waves, and is therefore known as millimetre and submillimetre radiation. ALMA comprises 66 high-precision antennas, spread over distances of up to 16 kilometres, and is the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence. This panorama shows ALMA antennas underneath the arching Milky Way. ALMA plays a key role in the Event Horizon Telescope, a planet-scale array of eight ground-based telescopes designed to capture images of a black hole. Credit: P. Horálek/ESO
ALMA. High on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), together with its international partners, is operating the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — a state-of-the-art telescope to study light from some of the coldest objects in the Universe. This light has wavelengths of around a millimetre, between infrared light and radio waves, and is therefore known as millimetre and submillimetre radiation. ALMA comprises 66 high-precision antennas, spread over distances of up to 16 kilometres, and is the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence. This panorama shows ALMA antennas underneath the arching Milky Way.
ALMA plays a key role in the Event Horizon Telescope, a planet-scale array of eight ground-based telescopes designed to capture images of a black hole. Credit: P. Horálek/ESO

“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,” remarks Paul T.P. Ho, EHT Board member and Director of the East Asian Observatory [5]. “This makes us confident about the interpretation of our observations, including our estimation of the black hole’s mass.

APEX. ESO operates the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, APEX, at one of the highest observatory sites on Earth, at an elevation of 5100 metres, high on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region. APEX is a 12-metre diameter telescope, operating at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths — between infrared light and radio waves. Submillimetre astronomy opens a window into the cold, dusty and distant Universe, but the faint signals from space are heavily absorbed by water vapour in the Earth's atmosphere. Chajnantor is an ideal location for such a telescope, as the region is one of the driest on the planet and is more than 750 m higher than the observatories on Mauna Kea, and 2400 m higher than the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal. APEX plays a key role in the Event Horizon Telescope, a planet-scale array of eight ground-based telescopes designed to capture images of a black hole. Credit: ESO
APEX. ESO operates the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment, APEX, at one of the highest observatory sites on Earth, at an elevation of 5100 metres, high on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region. APEX is a 12-metre diameter telescope, operating at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths — between infrared light and radio waves. Submillimetre astronomy opens a window into the cold, dusty and distant Universe, but the faint signals from space are heavily absorbed by water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere. Chajnantor is an ideal location for such a telescope, as the region is one of the driest on the planet and is more than 750 m higher than the observatories on Mauna Kea, and 2400 m higher than the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal.
APEX plays a key role in the Event Horizon Telescope, a planet-scale array of eight ground-based telescopes designed to capture images of a black hole. Credit: ESO

The confrontation of theory with observations is always a dramatic moment for a theorist. It was a relief and a source of pride to realise that the observations matched our predictions so well,” elaborated EHT Board member Luciano Rezzolla of Goethe Universität, Germany.

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 [6].

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 [7]. 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 [8]. 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.

Key Concepts in Interferometry. This poster from the NRAO explains some of the key concepts in interferometry, the breakthrough that made the Event Horizon Telescope observations of M87’s black hole possible. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello
Key Concepts in Interferometry. This poster from the NRAO explains some of the key concepts in interferometry, the breakthrough that made the Event Horizon Telescope observations of M87’s black hole possible.
Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; S. Dagnello

ESO is delighted to have significantly contributed to this result through its European leadership and pivotal role in two of the EHT’s component telescopes, located in Chile — ALMA and APEX,” commented ESO Director General Xavier Barcons. “ALMA is the most sensitive facility in the EHT, and its 66 high-precision antennas were critical in making the EHT a success.

Locations of the EHT Telescopes. This diagram shows the location of the telescopes used in the 2017 EHT observations of M87. Credit: NRAO
Locations of the EHT Telescopes. This diagram shows the location of the telescopes used in the 2017 EHT observations of M87. Credit: NRAO

We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago,” concluded Doeleman. “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.

In the Shadow of a Black Hole

Notes

[1] The shadow of a black hole is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across.

[2] Supermassive black holes are relatively tiny astronomical objects — which has made them impossible to directly observe until now. As the size of a black hole’s event horizon is proportional to its mass, the more massive a black hole, the larger the shadow. Thanks to its enormous mass and relative proximity, M87’s black hole was predicted to be one of the largest viewable from Earth — making it a perfect target for the EHT.

[3] Although the telescopes are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration.

[4] 100 years ago, two expeditions set out for Principe Island off the coast of Africa and Sobral in Brazil to observe the 1919 solar eclipse, with the goal of testing general relativity by seeing if starlight would be bent around the limb of the sun, as predicted by Einstein. In an echo of those observations, the EHT has sent team members to some of the world’s highest and most isolated radio facilities to once again test our understanding of gravity.

[5] The East Asian Observatory (EAO) partner on the EHT project represents the participation of many regions in Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, India and Indonesia.

[6] Future EHT observations will see substantially increased sensitivity with the participation of the IRAM NOEMA Observatory, the Greenland Telescope and the Kitt Peak Telescope.

[7] ALMA is a partnership of the European Southern Observatory (ESO; Europe, representing its member states), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences(NINS) of Japan, together with the National Research Council (Canada), the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST; Taiwan), Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA; Taiwan), and Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI; Republic of Korea), in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. APEX is operated by ESO, the 30-meter telescope is operated by IRAM(the IRAM Partner Organizations are MPG (Germany), CNRS (France) and IGN (Spain)), the James Clerk Maxwell Telescopeis operated by the EAO, the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano is operated by INAOE and UMass, theSubmillimeter Array is operated by SAO and ASIAA and the Submillimeter Telescope is operated by the Arizona Radio Observatory (ARO). The South Pole Telescope is operated by the University of Chicago with specialized EHT instrumentation provided by the University of Arizona.

[8] BlackHoleCam is an EU-funded project to image, measure and understand astrophysical black holes. The main goal of BlackHoleCam and the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is to make the first ever images of the billion solar masses black hole in the nearby galaxy M87 and of its smaller cousin, Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way. This allows the determination of the deformation of spacetime caused by a black hole with extreme precision.

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”.

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