The supermassive black hole at the heart of galaxy M87 displays a bright ring as light bends in its intense gravity. (Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope via Wikipedia)
Event Horizon Telescope researchers have released the first ever images of a massive black hole with a mass of 6.5-billion times that of our sun, located 55-million light-years away at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, in the Virgo galaxy cluster. Black holes were previously “seen” through their interaction with surrounding matter, electromagnetic radiation, and orbiting stars, making this an incredible discovery.
Radio telescopes stationed all over the globe were combined to create a single powerful virtual telescope capable of imaging black holes. (Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope)
To gain the new images, the researchers tasked the Event Horizon Telescope- a wide planetary array of radio telescopes linked together that use data from several VLBI (Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry) stations around the globe. When used in concert, the telescopes combine to create a virtual telescope that has a diameter of the earth, building a high-sensitivity, high-angular-resolution observatory.
According to EHT Science Council Chairman Heino Falcke, “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. 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 allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87’s black hole.”
An artist’s impression of a black hole and the breakdown of its many parts. (Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope)
The now iconic image wouldn’t have been possible without Katie Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow (Harvard University) on the EHT research team. Katie is responsible for creating an algorithm that helped devise the imaging methods for the EHT array. The algorithm essentially ‘stitches’ together the data (in this case measurements) collected from the telescopes using three scripted code pipelines to produce a single image. Katie also theorized that black holes leave a background shadow of hot gas, which turns out is accurate and helped to visualize their new photos.
While this is a great accomplishment, the researchers plan to add more observatories capable of using light with slightly higher frequency in the hopes of gaining higher resolution images of the celestial phenomenon.
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