UP part of global research team to present the first image of Sagittarius A*

Revealing the black hole at the heart of our galaxy

Astronomers have unveiled the first image of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy. The announcement was made at simultaneous press conferences around the world. Professor Roger Deane, an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and Director for the Centre of Astrophysics at the University of Witwatersrand and Wits Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Iniyan Natarajan, were part of this global collaboration with the Event Horizon Telescope team. They are the only two African-based representatives who are part of the global team of more than 300 astronomers.

This result provides overwhelming evidence that the object is indeed a black hole and yields valuable clues about the workings of such giants, which are thought to reside at the centre of most galaxies. The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes.

The image is a long-anticipated look at the massive object that sits at the very centre of our galaxy. Scientists had previously tracked stars orbiting around something invisible, compact, and very massive at the centre of the Milky Way. This strongly suggested that this object — known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*, pronounced "sadge-ay-star") — is a black hole, and today’s image provides the first direct visual evidence of it.

Although we cannot see the black hole itself, because it is completely dark, glowing gas around it reveals a telltale signature: a dark central region (called a “shadow”) surrounded by a bright ring-like structure. The new view captures light bent by the powerful gravity of the black hole, which is four million times more massive than our sun.

“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity," said EHT Project Scientist Geoffrey Bower from the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica, Taipei. "These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very centre of our galaxy, and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.” The EHT team's results are being published today in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Because the black hole is about 27,000 light-years away from Earth, it appears to us to have about the same size in the sky as a donut on the Moon. To image it, the team created the powerful EHT, which linked together eight existing radio observatories across the planet to form a single “Earth-sized” virtual telescope [1]. The EHT observed Sgr A* on multiple nights, collecting data for many hours in a row, similar to using a long exposure time on a camera.

According to Prof Deane, “Southern Africa holds a distinct geographic advantage to host new EHT telescopes, especially to make movies of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, which lies directly above us in the southern sky. A campaign to add these game-changing African nodes to the global network is underway with several national and international partners, including Wits and the University of Pretoria. This effort has a strong synergy with the future African expansion of the Square Kilometre Array mid-frequency array centred in the Karoo National Park, with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT telescope serving as a precursor”.

The breakthrough follows the EHT collaboration’s 2019 release of the first image of a black hole, called M87*, at the centre of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy.

The two black holes look remarkably similar, even though our galaxy’s black hole is more than a thousand times smaller and less massive than M87* [2]. "We have two completely different types of galaxies and two very different black hole masses, but close to the edge of these black holes they look amazingly similar,” says Sera Markoff, Co-Chair of the EHT Science Council and a professor of theoretical astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. "This tells us that General Relativity governs these objects up close, and any differences we see further away must be due to differences in the material that surrounds the black holes.”

This achievement was considerably more difficult than for M87*, even though Sgr A* is much closer to us. EHT scientist Chi-kwan (‘CK’) Chan, from Steward Observatory and Department of Astronomy and the Data Science Institute of the University of Arizona, US, explains: “The gas in the vicinity of the black holes moves at the same speed — nearly as fast as light — around both Sgr A* and M87*. But where gas takes days to weeks to orbit the larger M87*, in the much smaller Sgr A* it completes an orbit in mere minutes. This means the brightness and pattern of the gas around Sgr A* was changing rapidly as the EHT Collaboration was observing it — a bit like trying to take a clear picture of a puppy quickly chasing its tail.”

The researchers had to develop sophisticated new tools that accounted for the gas movement around Sgr A*. While M87* was an easier, steadier target, with nearly all images looking the same, that was not the case for Sgr A*. The image of the Sgr A* black hole is an average of the different images the team extracted, finally revealing the giant lurking at the centre of our galaxy for the first time.

The effort was made possible through the ingenuity of more than 300 researchers from 80 institutes around the world that together make up the EHT Collaboration. In addition to developing complex tools to overcome the challenges of imaging Sgr A*, the team worked rigorously for five years, using supercomputers to combine and analyse their data, all while compiling an unprecedented library of simulated black holes to compare with the observations. The South African team’s contributions included precision measurements of the black hole ring size using a suite of algorithms, as well as developing the sophisticated software suite used to simulate realistic EHT datasets. These were critical in order to compare theoretical predictions with the observations, and in turn to test theories of gravity.

Scientists are particularly excited to finally have images of two black holes of very different sizes, which offers the opportunity to understand how they compare and contrast. They have also begun to use the new data to test theories and models of how gas behaves around supermassive black holes. This process is not yet fully understood but is thought to play a key role in shaping the formation and evolution of galaxies.

“Now we can study the differences between these two supermassive black holes to gain valuable new clues about how this important process works,” said EHT scientist Keiichi Asada from the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica, Taipei. “We have images for two black holes — one at the large end and one at the small end of supermassive black holes in the Universe — so we can go a lot further in testing how gravity behaves in these extreme environments than ever before.”

Progress on the EHT continues: a major observation campaign in March 2022 included more telescopes than ever before. The ongoing expansion of the EHT network and significant technological upgrades will allow scientists to share even more impressive images as well as movies of black holes in the near future.

Notes

[1] The individual telescopes involved in the EHT in April 2017, when the observations were conducted, were: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), the IRAM 30-meter Telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano (LMT), the Submillimeter Array (SMA), the UArizona Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), the South Pole Telescope (SPT). Since then, the EHT has added the Greenland Telescope (GLT), the NOrthern Extended Millimeter Array (NOEMA) and the UArizona 12-meter Telescope on Kitt Peak to its network. 

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. The Joint ALMA Observatory is operated by ESO, the Associated Universities, Inc./National Radio Astronomy Observatory (AUI/NRAO) and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). APEX, a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (Germany), the Onsala Space Observatory (Sweden) and ESO, 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 JCMT is operated by the East Asian Observatory on behalf of the Center for Astronomical Mega-Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, NAOJ, ASIAA, KASI, the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, and organizations in the United Kingdom and Canada. The LMT is operated by INAOE and UMass, the SMA is operated by Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and ASIAA and the UArizona SMT is operated by the University of Arizona. The SPT is operated by the University of Chicago with specialized EHT instrumentation provided by the University of Arizona. 

The Greenland Telescope (GLT) is operated by ASIAA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). The GLT is part of the ALMA-Taiwan project, and is supported in part by the Academia Sinica (AS) and MOST. NOEMA is operated by IRAM and the UArizona 12-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is operated by the University of Arizona.

[2] Black holes are the only objects we know of where mass scales with size. A black hole a thousand times smaller than another is also a thousand times less massive. 

Click on page 2 for a timeline of how long it took to get the first image of Sgr A or click on the infographic. Click on the infographics in the sidebar to learn more about what it took to produce this image. Click on the video in the sidebar to fly through the Milky Way into Sgr A. 

Video Banner caption and credit: Why do we observe at 1.3mm wavelength? Because the plasma around Sgr A* is transparent. Credit: CK Chan/UArizona

The timeline to Sgr A*

Supermassive black holes are the most monstrous objects predicted by Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. These cosmic bodies energize the luminous centers of most galaxies, where they convert the gravitational potential energy of in-falling matter to radiant power and jets of charged particles that stretch for tens of thousands of light years. Despite their commanding presence, black holes remain "unseeable," as they consume the very light that could illuminate them and remain hidden behind a superheated haze of stellar matter. 

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is making these mysterious objects observable. During the EHT’s initial 2017 campaign, data were collected from a synchronized array of eight ground-based radio telescopes trained at the centers of two galaxies. An unprecedented international effort, this project involved more than a dozen institutions and a global collaboration exceeding two hundred researchers. The result: the first visual evidence of a black hole at the scale of the event horizon, the point of no return. This radiolight image opens a new window into intensive investigations of spacetime within such an extreme environment. 

The EHT project is the culmination of a two-decades long effort to image a black hole. But, the legacy of testing Einstein’s general relativity stretches back a century to the expedition of astronomer Arthur Eddington. Armed with instrumentation to study a total solar eclipse on the island of Principe, Eddington confirmed what Einstein predicted: that light emanating from stars in apparent position near the Sun would bend in response to gravity. 

The eclipse of May 29, 1919, would become the first proving ground of relativity. Major contributions by Schwarzschild, Kerr, Penrose, Wheeler, Hawking, and others through the 20th century focused specific attention on black holes physics and the nature of the event horizon itself. Since 1919, black holes have transformed from theoretical interstellar vacuums to become the pulsing hearts of nearly every galactic system. Within this same period, breakthroughs in computer storage and processor technology allowed the capture and analysis of astronomical data sets in enormous quantities. Bolstered by Moore’s Law, data processing equipment became faster and more capable of complex computation. Radio telescope instrumentation also advanced, with increased sensitivity and greater precision.

Shaped by this rich legacy, the EHT project emerged from the natural convergence of high angular resolution techniques and a growing corpus of simulations of the event horizon environment. 

TIMELINE

EVENT

1859

Perihelion advance of Mercury discovered.

1887

Michelson-Morley experiment.

1909

Ehrenfest paradox motivates Einstein to develop General Relativity.  

1915

Einstein proposed theory of General Relativity describing geometrically how matter and energy bend spacetime, giving rise to gravity. 

1915

General Relativity explains perihelion advance of Mercury. 

1916

Schwarzschild solves Einstein's field equations for a point mass, effectively discovering the event horizon. 

1919

Deflection of starlight by the Sun, Eddington confirms General Relativity. 

1952

Development of aperture synthesis principle in Cavendish Lab, Cambridge, UK making interferometric imaging possible (Nobel Prize 1974 - Martin Ryle and Tony Hewish)

1954

Gravitational redshift observed in 40 Eridani B by Popper, ApJ 120, 316 (1954). 

1964

Shapiro delay measured in radar to Venus. 

1967

First radio astronomical observations using very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI), Broten et al. Science 156, 1592 (1967)

1973

Bardeen on black hole mechanics, Comm. Math. Phys. 31, 2 (1973).

1974

Discovery of binary pulsar (Hulse-Taylor) which leads to proof of gravitational waves (Nobel Prize 1993). 

1976

Gravity Probe A: gravitational time dilation. 

1979

Luminet on imaging a spherical black hole with thin accretion disk, A&A 75,  1-2 (1979).

1982

First 3-mm-VLBI observations (Owens Valley to Hat Creek in California, USA), Readhead et al. Nature 303, 504 (1983).

1985

First 7 mm-VLBI transatlantic and global observations, Marcaide et al. ESOC 22, 157 (1985)Bartel et al. Nature 334, 131 (1988).

1988

Strong gravitational lensing probed by VLA observations of the radio source MG 1131+0456, Hewitt et al. Nature 333, 6173 (1988). 

1989

First VLBI fringes at 1.3 mm: Padin et al.: 223 GHz VLBI observations of 3C 273, ApJ 360, L11 (1990). 

1994

First VLBI fringes at 1.3 mm between IRAM telescopes (IRAM 30-meter Telescope and IRAM NOEMA Observatory), Greve et al. A&A 299, L33 (1995).

1995

Detection of six AGN at 1.3 mm: Krichbaum et al.: 215 GHz VLBI observations of bright Active Galactic Nuclei, A&A 323, L17 (1997). 

1995

First determination of the size of Sgr A* at 1.3 mm using the IRAM 30-meter Telescope and the IRAM NOEMA Observatory: Krichbaum et al. - A&A 335, L106 (1998).

1998

1.3 mm VLBI program at MIT/Haystack started with S. Doeleman.

1999

Computing the shadow of the black hole in Sgr A*: Falcke, Melia & Agol: Viewing the Shadow of the Black Hole at the Galactic Center, ApJ 528, L1 (2000). 

2002

First transatlantic VLBI at 2 mm (four antennas),  Krichbaum et al. EVN Conf 125 (2002).

2003

First transatlantic VLBI at 1.3 mm betwen the IRAM 30-meter Telescope and the Heinrich Hertz Telescope  Krichbaum et al. ECF 189 (2005) after unsuccessful attempt in 1999 (Doeleman & Krichbaum SMVS 173, 1999).

2007

Gravity Probe B: frame dragging. 

2007

Event-horizon-scale observations of Sgr A* at 1.3 mm: Doeleman et al.: Event-horizon- scale structure in the supermassive black hole candidate at the Galactic Centre, Nature 455, 78 (2008). 

2009

Launch of Event Horizon Telescope program at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. 

2011

Start of the ALMA Phasing Project to develop capability to observe with ALMA in VLBI mode. 

2012

First EHT collaboration meeting in Tucson, Arizona, and letter of intent to cooperate on EHT signed. 

2012

Discovery of event horizon scale structure within M87 (Doeleman et al 2012).

2013

Discovery of extreme polarized emission at the Galactic Center at 1.3 mm: Johnson et al.: Resolved magnetic-field structure and variability near the event horizon of Sagittarius A*, Science 350, 1242 (2015). 

2013

Asymmetry in the structure of Sgr A* at 1.3 mm: Fish et al.: Persistent Asymmetric Structure of Sagittarius A* on Event Horizon Scales, ApJ 890, 90 (2016). 

2013

Extension to the EHT array to Chile confirming Sgr A* asymmetry at 1.3 mm: Lu et al., Detection of intrinsic source structure at ~3 Schwarzschild radii with Millimeter-VLBI observations of Sgr A*, ApJ 859, 1 (2018). 

2014

European BlackHoleCam project started (funded by the European Research Council) and joins EHT. 

2015

LIGO detection of gravitational waves (Nobel Prize 2017). 

2015

First 1.3 mm VLBI detections to the South Pole Telescope, and first 1.3 mm VLBI detections to the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico. 

2015

Beamformed ALMA joins VLBI - fringes to APEX - ALMA Technical Notes 16 

2017

First full EHT observations including phased ALMA, SPT, LMT, SMT, SMA, JCMT, IRAM 30m, APEX. 

2017

EHT collaboration established through Collaboration Agreement. 

2018

VLTI/GRAVITY measures of orbit at ISCO radius of Sgr A*. 

2019

First image of a black hole presented by the EHT, corresponding to results based on 2017 observations from Messier 87.

2020

Nobel Prize in Physics to Roger Penrose "for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity" and jointly to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez "for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy."

2021

First image in polarised light of the observations of Messier 97.

2022

EHT results of the 2017 observations of Sgr A*.

Credit and Attribution: Table and text compiled from preparatory work carried out in April/May 2019 by Suana Crowley, and others)

A brief history of Sgr A infographic

Click on the infographic called A brief History of Sgr A in the side bar to enlarge.

The EHT consortium consists of 13 stakeholder institutes; the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the University of Arizona, the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, 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, and Radboud University.

May 12, 2022

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  • Professor Roger Deane

    University of Pretoria (UP) astrophysicist Professor Roger Deane was part of the international group of scientists who have captured the first image of a black hole. His group worked to develop simulations of the complex, Earth-sized telescope...

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