A sharp view into black holes

The Event Horizon Telescope has made a step toward taking the first detailed pictures of black holes by adding the South Pole Telescope to its instrumentation lineup.
By | Published: April 27, 2015 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
By combining telescopes across Earth, the Event Horizon Telescope will take the first detailed pictures of black holes.
The South Pole Telescope (SPT) and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) joined together in a “Very Long Baseline Interferometry” experiment for the first time in January 2015. The two telescopes together observed two sources — the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, Sagittarius A*, and the black hole at the center of the nearby galaxy Centaurus A — and combined their signals to synthesize a telescope 4,300 miles (7,000 kilometers) across (yellow line). With this success, the SPT joins the Event Horizon Telescope array, which connects APEX, the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico, the Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California, the Submillimeter Array and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, and the Institute for Radio Astronomy Millimetrique (IRAM) telescopes in Spain and France (not visible).
Dan Marrone/University of Arizona
Astronomers building an Earth-sized virtual telescope capable of photographing the event horizon of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way have extended their instrument to the bottom of the planet — the South Pole — thanks to recent efforts by a team of astronomers with participation of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany.

Last December, an international team of astronomers flew to the Southern Hemisphere. German, Chilean, and Korean scientists led by Alan Roy of the MPIfR traveled to Atacama, Chile, while American scientists led by Dan Marrone of the University of Arizona flew to the South Pole — all to arrange the telescopes into the largest virtual telescope ever built, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). By combining telescopes across Earth, the EHT will take the first detailed pictures of black holes.

“The goals of the EHT are to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, understand how black holes eat and generate relativistic outflows, and to prove the existence of the event horizon, or ‘edge,’ of a black hole,” said Marrone.

APEX, which recorded successful joint observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on January 13, 2015, with a virtual telescope of 1.29 miles (2.08 kilometers) in size, has now been connected with the South Pole Telescope (SPT), more than 4,300 miles (7,000km) away. This is the latest addition to an array of telescopes spread out across the globe and linked using a technique known as very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). Larger telescopes can make sharper observations, and interferometry allows multiple telescopes to act like a single telescope as large as the separation — or “baseline” — between them. Using VLBI, the sharpest observations can be achieved by making the separation between telescopes as large as possible.

“To make this work, we had to bring cutting-edge technology to some of the most remote places on Earth,” said Alan Roy. “It is a logistic challenge to include an increasing number of telescopes from Hawaii to Europe, from North America to Chile and to the South Pole to provide us with much improved image quality and sharpness.”

Even though the Milky Way’s black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”), is 4 million times more massive than the Sun, it is tiny to the eyes of astronomers. Smaller than Mercury’s orbit around the Sun, yet more than 27,000 light-years away, studying its event horizon in detail is equivalent to standing in New York and reading the date on a cent in Germany.

With its unprecedented resolution, more than 1,000 times better than the Hubble telescope, the EHT will see swirling gas on its final plunge over the event horizon, never to regain contact with the rest of the universe. If the general theory of relativity is correct, the black hole itself will be invisible because not even light can escape its immense gravity. However, it might still be seen as a silhouette against the background.

First postulated by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the existence of black holes has since been supported by decades’ worth of astronomical observations. Most, if not all, galaxies are now believed to harbor a supermassive black hole at their center, and smaller ones formed from dying stars should be scattered among their stars. The Milky Way is known to be home to about 25 smallish black holes ranging from five to 10 times the Sun’s mass. But never has it been possible to directly observe and image one of these cosmic oddities.

For their preliminary observations, the joint telescopes pointed to two known black holes, Sagittarius A* in our galaxy and another located 10 million light-years away in a galaxy named Centaurus A. For this experiment, the APEX telescope in Chile and the SPT in Antarctica observed together, despite being nearly 4,300 miles (7,000km) apart. Their detections are the highest-resolution observations ever made of either object in the southern sky, beating the previous record of peering into the heart of an active galactic nucleus by a factor of 10. Detecting a compact feature in Centaurus A at the resolution of 50 microarcseconds is equivalent to measuring an object 150 times the gravitational radius of the black hole at its center, believed to have a mass of 70 million Suns.

“Centaurus A is not visible from central Europe, and it has always been on our wish list,” said Alan Roy who knows the source quite well from Australia where he grew up. “And it is very impressive to detect Sagittarius A*, the central source of our Milky Way, at such high resolution.”

The addition of the SPT enhances the annual EHT experiments that combine telescopes all over the world. Several new telescopes have been preparing to join the EHT in the next year, meaning that the next experiment will be the largest both geographically and with regard to the number of telescopes involved. The engagement of the MPIfR is present through APEX and the IRAM telescopes in Pico Veleta (Spain) and Plateau de Bure (France), all operating at a wavelength as short as 1.3mm.