black hole

Black Hole Horizon

UMass Amherst helps reveal first-ever black hole image

An international team of astronomers including Gopal Narayanan and Peter Schloerb from UMass Amherst announced to the world last spring that they had observed the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive
black hole.

The image here reveals the black hole outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon. It is situated at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the Virgo cluster, 55 million light-years from Earth. “We’re seeing the unseeable,” says National Science Foundation director France Córdova.

Gopal Narayanan and Peter Schloerb
Gopal Narayanan (left) and Peter Schloerb
are members of an international team
who have received the 2020 Breakthrough Prize
in Fundamental Physics for helping to reveal
the first-ever image of a black hole. 

Eight ground-based radio telescopes from around the world were used to collect the data. They formed the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), of which the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano (LMT) is a node. The LMT, located at the top of a 15,000-foot extinct volcano in the Mexican State of Puebla, is a collaboration of the Instituto Nacional de Astrofisics Óptica y Electronica (INAOE) and UMass Amherst. Schloerb is principal investigator of the LMT project for UMass.

Narayanan, principal investigator for UMass Amherst’s EHT mission, helped built two radio astronomy receivers used to collect EHT data at the LMT site. Because of its large aperture and central geographical location atop the summit of Volcan Sierra Negra, the LMT has been critical to the success of the EHT array, said Narayanan.

Narayanan points out that one of the exciting areas of modern astrophysics is the notion that in and around the singularity of space-time of black holes, the macroscopic world collides with the microscopic world. For example, physicist Stephen Hawking has conjectured that black holes are ideal laboratories where the concepts of quantum mechanics and general relativity can be melded into a grand unified theory of fundamental concepts.

“The place to study that is at the event horizon of a black hole. By detecting this one, we get to the point where we can test some of these theories and start to identify the fundamental laws that order the universe,” said Narayanan.

The EHT team was recently awarded the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for this groundbreaking work. The Prize recognizes individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge.

Other UMass Amherst team members receiving the prize with Narayanan and Schloerb are Professor Neal Erickson, astronomy graduate students Aleks Popstefanija and Sandra Bustamante, and engineers Vern Fath, Ron Grosslein and Kamal Souccar '95MS.