Astronomers announce unprecedented data on famous supermassive black hole

New data released by a team of hundreds of international scientists offers a more comprehensive understanding of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87 and the system it powers.

A dramatic video announcing the findings promises “unparalleled insight” into the black hole and suggests that the observations could also help to improve tests of prolific mathematician Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

In order to measure and observe black hole behavior, researchers gathered information from 19 observatories, using imagery from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

In 2019, the scientists released the first-ever image of a black hole in the galaxy M87 — 55 million light-years away from Earth — using the EHT.

A co-author of a report on the new data sets published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Kazuhiro Hada, told NASA that the image had informed their work. 

“We knew that the first direct image of a black hole would be groundbreaking,” he said in a Wednesday release. “But to get the most out of this remarkable image, we need to know everything we can about the black hole’s behavior at that time by observing over the entire electromagnetic spectrum.”

For example, the space agency said in March that the Chandra X-ray Observatory had found evidence of a jet of particles coming from a fast-growing supermassive black hole. 

Astronomers have studied the jets that travel at almost the speed of light across vast distances and NASA said that the jets from M87 produce light across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, suggesting that each black hole has a unique pattern based on the intensity of light it produces.

“Identifying this pattern gives crucial insight into a black hole’s properties (for example, its spin and energy output), but this is a challenge because the pattern changes with time,” NASA said in the statement. 

The various telescopes utilized in this coordinated undertaking help to characterize the black holes and compensate for spectrum variability.

According to NASA, the observations — made from the end of March to the middle of April 2017 — mark the largest simultaneous observing campaign ever undertaken on a supermassive black hole with jets.

“The combination of data from these telescopes and current (and future) EHT observations, will allow scientists to conduct important lines of investigation into some of astrophysics’ most significant and challenging fields of study,” the agency said, noting that the first results showed the intensity of electromagnetic radiation produced by material around M87’s supermassive black hole was the lowest that had ever been witnessed.

This week, EHT array scientists are looking at the black hole in M87 once more as well as several other distant black holes. Several radio telescopes have been added to the network since 2017.

Technical issues stymied the 2019 campaign and the 2020 campaign was scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Space.com.

“With the release of these data, combined with the resumption of observing and an improved EHT, we know many exciting new results are on the horizon, co-author Mislav Baloković of Yale University, said in the NASA release.