After five years of calculations and analysis, the international collaboration of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) delivered on May 12, 2022 the image of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the giant black hole lurking at the center of our galaxy (the Milky Way), 27 000 light-years from Earth. Until now, its presence was only indirectly perceived, from a few radio emissions and the observation of the trajectories of stars orbiting at high speed around a gigantic but invisible mass. After the one obtained by the EHT in 2019 of the gigantic black hole M87* at the heart of the distant elliptical galaxy M87, this is the second direct image of this type of object that we have to date.
A difficult reconstruction
Remember. The very first telescopic image of a black hole surrounded by a disk of hot gas had been unveiled in April 2019 by the same EHT teams: it was the black hole M87* located at the center of the giant elliptical galaxy M87, 50 million light-years away. The observations of Sgr A* had been made in April 2017, during the same campaign as those of M87*. If it took five years of analysis for Sgr A* against two for M87*, it is because during the exposure time of the observations – of the order of an hour –, the light emission of the gas disk around Sgr A* is very variable, whereas that around M87* is almost fixed. The reason is that Sgr A* has a mass 1500 times smaller than M87* (4 million solar masses for SgrA* against 6 billion for M87*), so that the characteristic time scale of the luminous variability, given by the simple formula GM/c^3, is much faster: 20 seconds, against several hours for M87*.
Attempting to capture a sharp image of SgrA* in an exposure time of one hour was therefore like taking a picture of a dog running after its tail. It took considerable integration work to reconstruct a sufficiently sharp “average” image of SgrA*, as Figure 4 clearly shows.
To achieve the angular resolution needed to image SgrA* and M87*, equivalent to the tiny angle at which we would see an apple on the Moon from Earth, the EHT used a network of radiotelescopes stretching from Antarctica to North America via Chile, the Hawaiian Islands, and Europe so as to have the equivalent of a single planet-sized instrument operating in interferometric mode.
What is striking at first sight is that the two photographs of M87* and SgrA* look very similar: in the center, a black shadow, image of the event horizon (name given, I recall, to the intangible surface of a black hole) enlarged by a factor of 2.6 (as I had shown in my 1979 paper, cf. fig. 6), surrounded by a yellow-orange luminous corona (in false colors), blurred and with spots of highlighting.
The most important difference is the appearance of three distinct spotlights in the bright ring of SgrA*, whereas the ring of M87 is continuous with two contiguous highlights. Similarly, the central shadow appears less round for SgrA*, probably due to the large number of images that had to be integrated during the hours of observation.
A catalog of several thousands of numerical simulations has been established for comparison with the EHT images and to fix probable ranges of values for the physical characteristics (viewing angle, spin, etc., see below) of SgrA*. Hot ionized gas is rapidly rotating around the black hole, forming spiral arms that become brighter at their tangency with the photon ring, where the light is amplified by strong gravitational lensing. It is these bright points that are integrated in the course of time, and that give the general structure of the luminous rings.
Accretion disk or photon ring?
What exactly do these two historical pictures reveal?
and to draw quick conclusions about the structure of the accretion disk and the angle from which it is seen from the Earth:
I confess that I myself got carried away by this interpretation, which on the one hand flattered my pioneering calculations, on the other hand was in no way denied by the EHT researchers, who on the contrary rolled out a red carpet for me at the first conference held on the subject at Harvard University in June 2019.
So much so that, as much for the image of M87* as for the more recent one of SgrA*, this interpretation has been taken up in most of the popular science media. Especially since the specialized articles published by the EHT researchers, full of technical details, remain strangely vague on the question…
However, the physical reality is always more complex than our first reading grids. A finer analysis, made since 2019 on M87* and reinforced in 2022 by that of SgrA*, suggests that the luminous “donut” shaped corona is not the direct image of the gaseous accretion disks orbiting their respective black holes, and that the spotlights do not completely reflect the real state of the gas around the black hole, nor do they translate the Doppler effect due to the relativistic rotation of the gas! Continue reading →
Unfortunately Marck’s simulations of black hole accretion disks remained mostly ignored from the professional community, due to the fact that they were not published in peer-reviewed journals and, after their author prematurely died in May 2000, nobody could find the trace of his computer program…
Then, unaware of Marck’s results, several researchers of the 1990’s were involved in the program of calculating black hole gravitational lensing effects in various situations. Stuckey (1993) studied photon trajectories which circle a static black hole one or two times and terminate at their emission points (« boomerang photons »), producing a sequence of ring-shaped mirror images. Nemiroff (1993) described the visual distortion effects to an observer traveling around and descending to the surface of a neutron star and a black hole, discussing multiple imaging, red- and blue-shifting, the photon sphere and multiple Einstein rings. He displayed computer-generated illustrations highlighting the distortion effects on a background stellar field but no accretion disk, and made a short movie now available on the internet (Nemiroff 2018), two snapshots of which are shown in figure 1.
The first simulations of the shape of accretion disks around Kerr black holes were performed by Viergutz (1993). He treated slightly thick disks and produced colored contours, including the disk’s secondary image which wraps under the black hole (figure 2). The result is a colored generalization of the picture by Cunningham and Bardeen (1973) shown in 40 Years of Black Hole Imaging (1).
More elaborate views of a geometrically thin and optically thick accretion disk around a Kerr black hole were obtained by Fanton et al. (1997). They developed a new program of ray tracing in Kerr metric, and added false colors to encode the degree of spectral shift and temperature maps (figure 3). Zhang et al. (2002) used the same code to produce black-and-white images of standard thin accretion disks around black holes with different spins, viewing angles and energy bands (figure 4).
Ben Bromley et al. (1997) calculated integrated line profiles from a geometrically thin disk about a Schwarzschild and an extreme Kerr black hole, in order to get an observational signature of the frame-dragging effect (Figure 5).
In 1998 Andrew Hamilton started to develop for a student project at the University of Colorado a “Black Hole Flight Simulator”, with film clips that have been shown at planetariums, also available on the Internet. The first depictions were very schematic, but the website was constantly implemented. It now offers journeys into a Schwarzschild or a Reissner-Nordström (i.e. electrically charged) black hole with effects of gravitational lensing on a stellar background field, as well as animated visualizations of magneto-hydrodynamic simulations of a disk and jet around a non-rotating black hole (Hamilton 2018).
Journey into and through an electrically charged (non realistic) Reissner-Nordström black hole, from Andrew Hamilton, 2010
From Idea to Reality
A turning point in the history of black hole imaging came when the possibility of viewing in practice the shadow of SgrA* with VLBI radio astronomy techniques was first discussed (Falcke et al. 2000, Doeleman et al. 2001). Heino Falcke, Fulvio Melia and Eric Agol (who curiously did not quote my 1979 article) developed a general relativistic ray-tracing code that allowed them to simulate observed images of Sgr A* for various combinations of black hole spin, inclination angle, and morphology of the emission region directly surrounding the black hole (figure 6).
In 2001, Ben Bromley, Fulvio Melia and Siming Liu provided maps of the polarized emission of a Keplerian disk to illustrate how the images of polarized intensity from the vicinity of SgrA* would appear in future VLBI observations (Figure 7).
Indeed, in parallel with but rather independently from the theoretical simulations reviewed here, the work to image SgrA* by VLBI experiments had begun also back in the 1970’s, after the discovery of the compact radio source Sgr A* at the center of the Milky Way and its identification as the likely emission of gas falling onto a supermassive black hole (Balick and Brown 1974). And as soon as it was realized that the shadow of SgrA* could really be photographed in the forthcoming years, the program of imaging black holes with or without accretion disks and/or stellar background field developed at a much accelerated rate. Several dozens of papers with more or less elaborate visualizations bloomed out, so many that I’ll stop my illustrated history of black hole imaging at this turning point.
On the observational side, successive radio imaging observations progressively reduced the size of emission region if SgrA*. A breakthrough was to extend VLBI to 1mm wavelength, where the scattering effects are greatly reduced and angular resolution is matched to the shadow of the galactic black hole. Then the collective effort was named the “Event Horizon Telescope” as the natural convergence of many historical and parallel works done by several independent teams in the world (Doeleman et al. 2009). The later measurement of the size of the 6 billion solar mass black hole in M87 gave a second source suitable for shadow imaging (Doeleman et al. 2012).
Now the Event Horizon Telescope Consortium involves 20 universities, observatories, research institutions, government agencies and more than a hundred scientists who hope to make black hole imaging a reality as soon as 2019. The first telescopic image of M87* was delivered on April 10th, 2019.
The path from idea to reality can take very a long time. Imaging black holes, first with computers, now with telescopes, is a fantastic adventure. Forty years ago I couldn’t hope that a real image would be reachable in my lifetime and that, thanks to contributions by so many dedicated colleagues, my dream would become true.
In May 2019 I was invited to give the keynote talk at the 3rd Black Hole Initiative Conference at Harvard University and I could warmly congratulate the EHT team. The young commputer scientist Katie Bouman led the development of one of the various algorithms for imaging black holes. We were glad to meet each other, the young and the old !
Here is the video of my talk :
Technical References for the 3 posts
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In 1989-1990, while I spent one year as a research visitor at the University of California, Berkeley, my former collaborator at Paris-Meudon Observatory, Jean-Alain Marck, both an expert in general relativity and computer programming, started to extend my simulation of 1979. The fast improvement of computers and visualization software (he used a DEC-VAX 8600 machine) allowed him to add colors and motions. To reduce the computing time, Marck developed a new method for calculating the geodesics in Schwarzschild space-time, published only several years later (Marck 1996). In a first step Marck started from my model of 1979 and calculated static images of an accretion disk around a Schwarzschild black hole according to various angles of view, see Figure 1 below.
In 1991, when I went back to Paris Observatory, I started the project for the French-German TV channel Arte of a full-length, pedagogical movie about general relativity (Delesalle et al. 1994). As the final sequence dealt with black holes, I asked Marck to introduce motion of the observer with the camera moving around close to the disk, as well as to include higher-order lensed images and background stellar skies in order to make the pictures as realistic as possible. The calculation was done along an elliptic trajectory around a Schwarzschild black hole crossing several times the plane of a thin accretion disk and suffering a strong relativistic precession effect (i.e. rotation of its great axis), see figure 2 below.
Compared to my static, black-and-white simulation of 1979, the snapshot reproduced in Figure 3 below shows spectacular improvements:
The full movie is available on my youtube channel :
I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. Jorge luis Borges, The Aleph (1949)