An intense ring of light theorized to be created by photons whipping around the back of a supermassive black hole has been observed by scientists in a vivid confirmation of theoretical predictions.
Using sophisticated algorithms, scientists have detected a sharp ring of light created by photons hitting the back of a supermassive black hole.
A historical image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy M87 was released in 2019. Researchers believed there would be more images and even greater insights to be drawn from the data. This showed a dark core surrounded by a fiery aura of material falling toward it.
The simulations predicted that photons flung around the back of the black hole by its intense gravity should produce a thin, bright ring of light hidden behind the diffuse orange glow.
Scientists led by Avery Broderick remastered the original image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy using sophisticated imaging algorithms.
As Broderick, an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo, explained, “we turned off the searchlight so that we could see the fireflies.” “We have been able to do something profound – to resolve a fundamental signature of gravity around a black hole.”
The environment around the black hole can then be clearly seen by “peeling off” elements of the image, says co-author Hung-Yi Pu, an assistant professor at National Taiwan Normal University.
Using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) analysis framework THEMIS, the team isolated and extracted the distinct ring feature from observations of the M87 black hole – as well as detected a powerful jet erupting from the black hole – using a new imaging algorithm.
In addition to confirming theoretical predictions, these findings provide new ways to explore these mysterious objects that are believed to reside at the center of most galaxies.
The EHT is a global network of telescopes that has made black holes visible for the first time. In 2017, the EHT researchers observed two black holes using eight observatories on four continents, all pointing at the same spot in the sky and linked via nanosecond timing.
In 2019, the EHT collaboration discovered the supermassive black hole in M87, followed by the comparatively smaller yet highly turbulent black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*). The center of most galaxies is occupied by supermassive black holes, which pack a tremendous amount of energy and mass into a small area. As an example, the M87 black hole has a mass of two quadrillion (that’s two and fifteen zeros) times larger than the Earth.
Researchers felt that if they worked smarter rather than harder, they could glean new insights from the M87 image they released in 2019. Using new software techniques, they reconstructed the original 2017 data to identify phenomena that theories and models predicted would lurk beneath the surface. As a result, the team created a new image of the photon ring, comprising a series of increasingly sharp subrings that were then stacked together to produce the full picture.
In order to build a customized model for the EHT data, we leveraged our theoretical understanding of how black holes look, said Dominic Pesce, a team member from the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“This model decomposes the reconstructed image into the two pieces that we care most about, so we can study both pieces individually rather than blended together.”
According to Broderick, who holds the Delaney Family John Archibald Wheeler Chair at Perimeter, the EHT is fundamentally a computational instrument. It relies on algorithms just as much as it relies on steel. The researcher explained that the EHT’s native resolution allows us to render the remainder in its native size while probing key features of the image using cutting-edge algorithms.
The researchers’ findings were published on August 16 in The Astrophysical Journal.
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