Home Science Event Horizon Telescope captures stunning new image of Milky Way’s black hole

Event Horizon Telescope captures stunning new image of Milky Way’s black hole

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Event Horizon Telescope captures stunning new image of Milky Way’s black hole

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A new image from the Event Horizon Telescope has revealed powerful magnetic fields spiraling from the edge of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*.
Enlarge / A new image from the Event Horizon Telescope has revealed powerful magnetic fields spiraling from the edge of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*.

EHT Collaboration

Physicists have been confident since the1980s that there is a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, similar to those thought to be at the center of most spiral and elliptical galaxies. It’s since been dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), or SgrA* for short. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) captured the first image of SgrA* two years ago. Now the collaboration has revealed a new polarized image (above) showcasing the black hole’s swirling magnetic fields. The technical details appear in two new papers published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The new image is strikingly similar to another EHT image of a larger supermassive black hole, M87*, so this might be something that all such black holes share.

The only way to “see” a black hole is to image the shadow created by light as it bends in response to the object’s powerful gravitational field. As Ars Science Editor John Timmer reported in 2019, the EHT isn’t a telescope in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a collection of telescopes scattered around the globe. The EHT is created by interferometry, which uses light in the microwave regime of the electromagnetic spectrum captured at different locations. These recorded images are combined and processed to build an image with a resolution similar to that of a telescope the size of the most distant locations. Interferometry has been used at facilities like ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) in northern Chile, where telescopes can be spread across 16 km of desert.

In theory, there’s no upper limit on the size of the array, but to determine which photons originated simultaneously at the source, you need very precise location and timing information on each of the sites. And you still have to gather sufficient photons to see anything at all. So atomic clocks were installed at many of the locations, and exact GPS measurements were built up over time. For the EHT, the large collecting area of ALMA—combined with choosing a wavelength in which supermassive black holes are very bright—ensured sufficient photons.

In 2019, the EHT announced the first direct image taken of a black hole at the center of an elliptical galaxy, Messier 87, located in the constellation of Virgo some 55 million light-years away. This image would have been impossible a mere generation ago, and it was made possible by technological breakthroughs, innovative new algorithms, and (of course) connecting several of the world’s best radio observatories. The image confirmed that the object at the center of M87* is indeed a black hole.

In 2021, the EHT collaboration released a new image of M87* showing what the black hole looks like in polarized light—a signature of the magnetic fields at the object’s edge—which yielded fresh insight into how black holes gobble up matter and emit powerful jets from their cores. A few months later, the EHT was back with images of the “dark heart” of a radio galaxy known as Centaurus A, enabling the collaboration to pinpoint the location of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center.

SgrA* is much smaller but also much closer than M87*. That made it a bit more challenging to capture an equally sharp image because SgrA* changes on time scales of minutes and hours compared to days and weeks for M87*. Physicist Matt Strassler previously compared the feat to “taking a one-second exposure of a tree on a windy day. Things get blurred out, and it can be difficult to determine the true shape of what was captured in the image.”

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