When scientists unveiled humanity’s first historic black hole image in 2019 – depicting a dark core encircled by a fiery aura of matter falling towards it – they thought even richer images and insights were waiting to come. be extracted from the data.
The simulations predict that, obscured by this bright orange glow, there should be a thin, bright ring of light created by photons thrown from the back of the black hole by its intense gravity.
Now, a team of researchers has combined theoretical predictions and sophisticated imaging algorithms to “remaster” original imagery of the supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy M87*, first captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT ) in 2019. Their findings, published today in The Astrophysical Journal, are consistent with theoretical predictions and offer new ways to explore these mysterious objects, which are believed to reside at the heart of most galaxies.
“The approach we took was to leverage our theoretical understanding of how these black holes look to build a custom model for the EHT data,” says Dominic Pesce, co-author of the study based at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and member of the EHT collaboration. “Our model decomposes the reconstructed image into the two elements that interest us most, so that we can study the two elements individually rather than mixed together.”
The result was made possible because the EHT is a “computational instrument at its heart,” says Avery Broderick, who led the study and holds the Delaney Family John Archibald Wheeler Professorship at the Perimeter Institute. “It’s as much about algorithms as it is about steel. State-of-the-art algorithmic developments have allowed us to probe key features of the image while rendering the rest in the EHT’s native resolution.”
To achieve this result, the team used imaging software they developed called THEMIS, which allowed them to isolate distinct features of the ring from the original observations of the M87* black hole – as well as to reveal the telltale imprint of a powerful jet blowing outward from the black hole.
By essentially “peeling off” elements of the imagery, says co-author Hung-Yi Pu, an assistant professor at National Taiwan Normal University, “the environment around the black hole can then be clearly revealed.”
Black holes were long considered invisible until scientists brought them out of hiding with a global network of telescopes known as the EHT. Using eight observatories on four continents, all pointed at the same spot in the sky and linked together by nanosecond synchronization, EHT researchers observed two black holes in 2017.
The EHT collaboration first unveiled the supermassive black hole in M87* in 2019. Later in 2022, they revealed the relatively small but tumultuous black hole at the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A* ( or Sgr A*).
Supermassive black holes occupy the centers of most galaxies, packing an incredible amount of mass and energy into a small space; the M87* black hole, for example, is 2 quadrillion (i.e. two followed by 15 zeros) times more massive than Earth.
The M87* image that scientists unveiled in 2019 was a landmark find, but the researchers felt they could still refine the image and glean new information. By applying their new software technique to the original 2017 data, the team was able to focus the data’s binding power on the phenomena that theories and models predict lurk beneath the surface.
The newly developed technique barely shows its promise on existing EHT data from 2017.
“As we continue to add more telescopes and build the next-generation EHT, the increased quality and quantity of data will allow us to place more definitive constraints on these signatures of which we only now have our first glimpses. “, says co-author Paul Tiede, CfA astrophysicist and EHT fellow at Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative.