Science News has a historic snapshot that it took a long while to take – and from a long, long way away:
A world-spanning network of telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope zoomed in on the supermassive monster in the galaxy M87 to create this first-ever picture of a black hole.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” Sheperd Doeleman, EHT Director and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., said April 10 in Washington, D.C., at one of seven concurrent news conferences. The results were also published in six papers in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“We’ve been studying black holes so long, sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us have actually seen one,” France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, said in the Washington, D.C., news conference. Seeing one “is a Herculean task,” she said.
[S]ome black holes, especially supermassive ones dwelling in galaxies’ centers, stand out by voraciously accreting bright disks of gas and other material. The EHT image reveals the shadow of M87’s black hole on its accretion disk.
“Our mass determination by just directly looking at the shadow has helped resolve a longstanding controversy,” Sera Markoff, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam, said in the Washington, D.C., news conference. Estimates made using different techniques have ranged between 3.5 billion and 7.22 billion times the mass of the sun. But the new EHT measurements show that its mass is about 6.5 billion solar masses.
The team has also determined the behemoth’s size — its diameter stretches 38 billion kilometers — and that the black hole spins clockwise. “M87 is a monster even by supermassive black hole standards,” Markoff said.
After more data analysis, the team hopes to solve some long-standing mysteries about black holes, such as how M87’s behemoth spews a bright jet of charged particles thousands of light-years into space.
The next look at the M87 and Milky Way behemoths will have to wait.
Scientists got a lucky stretch of good weather at all eight sites that made up the Event Horizon Telescope in 2017. Then bad weather in 2018 and technical difficulties, which cancelled the 2019 observing run, stymied the team.
The good news is that by 2020, there will be more observatories to work with. The Greenland Telescope joined the consortium in 2018, and the Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Ariz., and the NOrthern Extended Millimeter Array (NOEMA) in the French Alps will join EHT in 2020.
Adding more telescopes could allow the team to extend the image, to better capture the jets that spew from the black hole.