The study of black holes is a captivating field of science, leaving the majority of astronomers who dedicate their lives to studying these megalithic titans in awe over their cosmological significance.
And for the first time ever, a team of scientists were able to capture an image of the shadow of the black hole at the centre of Messier 87 (M87) galaxy and the powerful jet that it expelled, all in one shot. This incredible feat was accomplished with the help of the Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and the Greenland Telescope (GLT).
Black holes are known for their ability to consume surrounding matter, but they can also emit forceful jets of matter that extend beyond their host galaxies. This phenomenon has been somewhat of an enigma to astronomers for some time.
Ru-Sen Lu from the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory explained that while scientists are aware that these jets originate from the vicinity surrounding black holes, the exact mechanisms behind their formation remain unclear. To gain a better understanding of this process, it is necessary to observe the point of origin of these jets as close as possible to the black hole.
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The black hole in the M87 galaxy is 6.5 billion times larger than the Sun and is only 55 million light-years away from Earth. In past studies, scientists managed to capture images of the area surrounding the black hole and the jet separately, but this latest image depicts both features at once. According to Jae-Young Kim, a researcher from Kyungpook National University in South Korea and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, this new image provides a complete view of the black hole’s vicinity and the jet.
The GMVA, ALMA, and GLT collaborate as a global network of radio telescopes, functioning as an Earth-sized virtual telescope. This extensive network has the capability to distinguish minute details in the vicinity surrounding the black hole in M87. The latest image obtained reveals the emergence of the jet in proximity to the black hole, in addition to the shadow of the black hole that researchers refer to.
Matter orbiting the black hole generates heat and light. The black hole captures some of this light, and the bending of light creates a ring-like structure around the black hole, which appears dark in the centre. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) first captured the image of the black hole’s shadow in 2017. Both the new image and the EHT image were generated using data from multiple radio telescopes worldwide. However, the new image uses radio light emitted at a longer wavelength (3.5 mm) than the EHT image (1.3 mm).
“At this wavelength, we can see how the jet emerges from the ring of emission around the central supermassive black hole,” says Thomas Krichbaum of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.
According to the new data gathered by the GMVA network, the ring-shaped structure surrounding the black hole is around 50% larger compared to the one captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. Keiichi Asada, a researcher from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, clarifies that in order to comprehend the origin of this larger and thicker ring, simulations were conducted. The findings imply that the new image provides a better view of the material that is moving towards the black hole, compared to what was visible with the EHT.
Messier 87 Black Hole and GMVA
In 2018, the GMVA, which is composed of 14 radio telescopes located in Europe and North America, conducted the latest observations of M87’s black hole. Additionally, the GMVA was linked with two other facilities: the Greenland Telescope and ALMA, in which ESO is a partner. ALMA, which comprises of 66 antennas situated in the Chilean Atacama desert, played a vital role in the recent breakthrough.
The recent observation of both the jet and the shadow of the black hole in a single image is a major breakthrough in the field of black hole research and its influence on the formation of the universe. This finding provides astronomers with a deeper comprehension of the mechanism responsible for the ejection of these potent jets and the activities that take place near supermassive black holes.
But beyond that, experts say it also highlights the importance of international collaboration and advanced technology in modern astronomy. The Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and Greenland Telescope (GLT) were able to work together as a virtual Earth-sized telescope, resulting in an image with incredible detail and clarity.
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As technology continues to advance, it opens up new possibilities for discoveries and understanding in the field of astronomy. The coming years promise to be an exciting time as astronomers continue to push the limits of what is possible, unlocking the mysteries of the universe one discovery at a time.