JPL Helped Scientists Find Massive Black Hole Pictured in Already-Iconic Image

Published : Thursday, April 11, 2019 | 5:07 AM

Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

[Updated] The first photo of a black hole ever captured was not part of a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/JPL) mission, but the Pasadena-based science factory can claim it helped point the way.

“We did not take picture,” said spokeswoman Calla Cofield in an April 10 interview. “It was part of a non-NASA mission called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). What our telescopes did do was help those scientists figure out where to look. So there was some contextual assistance.”

So dense is a black hole, that no light can escape. To come near its maw – its “event horizon” – is to be devoured by overwhelming gravitational force. It cannot be seen, but is rimmed with a hot disk of shiny material against which the black hole appears to cast a shadow.

It’s that shadow which was captured by the EHT mission’s photograph.

According to Gary Zukav’s classic primer on subatomic physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “What happens to an object that passes through an event horizon is even more fantastic than the wildest science fiction.”

When a black hole is rotating, Zukav explained, an object is pulled to its center – to the point of singularity – where even time and space disappear – and is literally squeezed out of existence.

“It is speculated that everything which is sucked into a black hole is spilled out again on ‘the other side’ — the ‘other side’ being another universe!” wrote Zukav.

If the black hole is not rotating, an object sucked in might emerge, through what are called “wormholes,” into another time and place in the universe, or into another universe.


Anyway, the image, making the rounds of this planet, shows the shadow of a supermassive black hole in the center of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy. This particular black hole, according to NASA/JPL, is 6.5 billion times the mass of the Earth’s Sun.

“Catching its shadow involved eight ground-based radio telescopes around the globe, operating together as if they were one telescope the size of our entire planet,” NASA/JPL explained in a statement.

NASA spacecraft were also used to observe the black hole using different wavelengths of light. Among them was the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR); a product of JPL/Caltech research.

“NuSTAR is an X-ray telescope, so we are only looking at the X-ray part of the spectrum,” explained JPL/Caltech research scientist Javier Garcia. “The atmosphere is opaque to X-rays from space, and they will be absorbed, so we have to put these telescopes in space.”

NuSTAR, Garcia explained,observers high energies in the x-ray spectrum. Combining its data with that collected by another floating NASA telescope focused on low energies in the spectrum, “will give you a broadband picture of the x-ray emissions [from the black hole].”

For reasons unknown, particles get a burst of energy when near the black hole and form jets which shoot away at nearly the speed of light.

Each of these space-borne telescopes was attuned to a different variety of X-ray light, focused on the M87 black hole about the same time the EHT did. Scientists used the data garnered by these devices to compare their jet and disk models with the EHT data.

“I want to make clear,” said Garcia, “these observations by x-ray telescopes don’t contribute directly to make the picture that you see.

“They provide additional information; in this case a very strong jet emission that we always see coming from this galaxy so you can correctly estimate its luminosity, how bright this jet is, which is then joined with other information to make the physical picture.”

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