Media release

NRF|SARAO congratulates Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Consortium on First Image of Black Hole

10 April 2019

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) congratulates the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Consortium on capturing the first image of the gargantuan black hole at the heart of the distant galaxy Messier 87.

The breakthrough was announced by the EHT Consortium today in a series of six papers published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. According to the official announcement, the image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times that of the Sun.

The EHT links telescopes around the globe to form an Earth-sized virtual telescope, using the same technique as the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network, but at much higher frequency, enabling an even sharper view of black holes. The EHT is the result of years of international collaboration and offers scientists an unprecedented view of supermassive black holes, which are of the most extreme objects in the Universe. Supermassive black holes are a prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity theory and this first image of the black hole shadow has been announced during the centennial year of the historic experiment that first confirmed his theory.

The EHT collaboration involves more than 200 researchers from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. This includes Professor Roger Deane from the Department of Physics at the University of Pretoria, as well as his post-doctoral fellow, Dr Iniyan Natarajan, from the Department of Physics and Electronics at Rhodes University in Makhanda. Their contribution was to build a highly realistic simulation of this Earth-sized instrument that enables astronomers to better understand real observations, discriminate between theoretical black hole models, and provide insights into the characteristics of the telescope itself.

Prof. Deane and Dr Natarajan’s contribution is supported by the University of Pretoria, as well as by a grant awarded to Rhodes University, which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) through SARAO’s Human Capacity Development Programme.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration – was designed to capture images of a black hole. Today, in coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they have succeeded, unveiling this first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

SARAO has also supported the Masters thesis of Mr Tariq Blecher from Rhodes University, who was supervised by Prof. Deane. Mr Blecher’s research resulted in a publication cited in two of the six EHT papers released at today’s six simultaneous EHT press conferences in Brussels, Santiago, Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C.

“I am extremely proud of the young team that has contributed to this historic result,” said Deane. “The result and new techniques developed by the EHT Consortium highlight the power of creating continental or Earth-sized telescopes and the great discoveries it can enable.”

SARAO has also contributed to EHT expertise by supporting the Doctoral degree of Dr Andre Young who graduated from the University of Stellenbosch. Since completing his doctorate, Dr Young has helped develop the phasing system used at the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, a key station of the EHT array. He is currently based at Radboud University in the Netherlands, where he is working on the remote control of the VLBI backend equipment in the EHT, as well as on the Africa Millimeter Telescope.

“The EHT demonstrates how initial investments in world-class astronomy instruments can have a broader impact than just the research for which each instrument was designed. The EHT has advanced international and inter-organisational collaboration, while SARAO and its partner institutes for higher education have used the opportunity for the development of human capacity in astronomy in Africa,” said SARAO Managing Director, Dr Rob Adam. “We congratulate the EHT Consortium on this breakthrough, and look forward to more scientific results from this impressive VLBI array.

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Kim de Boer
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