The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration has unveiled a new, sharper image of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy. The image provides unprecedented details about the black hole and its environment, revealing unexpected structures around the black hole’s shadow.
Overview of the New Black Hole Image
The new image shows the black hole and its shadow in finer detail than ever before. The image has a resolution four times higher than the first historic image released in 2019.
While the shadow—the black hole’s point of no return—looks similar to previous images, the ring of light surrounding it shows new asymmetric brightness. The bottom half of the ring appears brighter than the top half.
Additionally, the image reveals a streak of light extending from the right side of the ring, along with some brighter clumps or knots of material orbiting inside the ring.
“The new image shows finer details of the black hole shadow, which are fingerprints of how space and time are distorted near the black hole,” said Monika Mościbrodzka, coordinator of the EHT Imaging Working Group.
What the New Details Reveal About the Black Hole
The asymmetries and substructures revealed in the new image provide valuable clues about the black hole’s environment and behavior.
Several factors likely contribute to these features, including:
Magnetic fields: Strong magnetic fields around the black hole twist and distort the image of the accretion disk. Different magnetic field configurations can account for the streak extension.
Relativistic jets: Powerful jets of particles launched outward from the poles of the black hole can also influence the appearance of the ring. Doppler beaming caused by the jet motion affects the brightness.
Accretion disk turbulence: Turbulence and instabilities in the hot plasma orbiting the black hole lead to clumps and brightness variations in the ring around the shadow.
“The black hole is feeding violently on its surrounding material, unleashing massive outbursts that impact its immediate vicinity but generally cannot break out of the powerful clutches of its gravity,” said EHT scientist Dimitrios Psaltis.
Implications for Understanding Black Hole Accretion
The new details provide important insights into the accretion processes powering active galactic nuclei like M87.
“We’re really probing how a black hole engine works,” said EHT scientist Geoffrey Bower. “This new image shows changes occurring near the edge of the black hole that we simply couldn’t see before.”
Understanding accretion and outflow processes in the turbulent plasma has broader implications for many phenomena, including stellar explosions and emissions from neutron star mergers.
“Today we’re revealing finer details near the black hole’s shadow, but we’re also interested in the larger picture—how the black hole interacts with the larger environment of the host galaxy,” Bower said.
What’s Next for the EHT Black Hole Observations
The EHT team plans to analyze the new 2021 data more thoroughly to piece together the physical processes at work in the black hole environment.
“With these new images we can begin to really probe the foundations of astrophysics in a way we haven’t been able to before,” said EHT scientist Paul Tiede.
The collaboration also aims to produce full-polarization images and to observe the black hole at multiple frequencies to thoroughly map its behavior.
Additionally, the EHT is working toward capturing images of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*. Those images could be released as early as 2023.
“We’re very excited to work toward images of the black hole at the center of our own galaxy,” said EHT scientist Chi-kwan Chan. “And we look forward to sharing those results with you when ready.”
- Press release from the National Science Foundation: M87* Continues to Surprise Astronomers
- Overview from EHT scientist Feryal Özel: What the New Image Tells Us
- Sky & Telescope article: The Black Hole Shadow in M87 One Year Later
- MSN story: Black Hole at the Center of the M87 Galaxy
- The Independent coverage: Brand New Image of Black Hole Reveals ‘Moving Shadow’
|Key Facts About M87’s Black Hole
|6.5 billion Suns
|Size of shadow
|~50 billion km
|Distance from Earth
|55 million light years
|First imaged by EHT
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