Astronomers image for the first time a black hole’s shadow together with a powerful jet

The Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) participates in obtaining an unprecedented panoramic view, which shows for the first time the black hole and the jet of matter that emerges from it. The data reveals that the black hole in the galaxy M87, the first to be imaged, consumes matter at a very low rate.



An international team of scientists that includes José Luis Gómez and Thalia Traianou from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (CSIC) has used new millimetre-wavelength observations to produce an image that shows, for the first time, both the ring-like structure that reveals the matter falling into the central black hole and the powerful relativistic jet in the prominent radio galaxy Messier 87. The image underlines for the first time the connection between the accretion flow near the central supermassive black hole and the origin of the jet. The new observations were obtained with the Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), complemented by the phased Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) and the Greenland Telescope (GLT). The addition of these two observatories has greatly enhanced the imaging capabilities of the GMVA. The results are published in the current issue of Nature.

"Previously we had seen both the black hole and the jet in separate images, but now we have taken a panoramic picture of the black hole together with its jet at a new wavelength”, says Ru-Sen Lu, from the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory and leader of a Max Planck Research Group at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The surrounding material is thought to fall into the black hole in a process known as accretion. But no one has ever imaged it directly. "The ring that we have seen before is becoming larger and thicker at 3.5 mm observing wavelength. This shows that the material falling into the black hole produces additional emission that is now observed in the new image. This gives us a more complete view of the physical processes acting near the black hole”, he added.


The participation of ALMA and GLT in the GMVA observations and the resulting increase in resolution and sensitivity of this intercontinental network of telescopes has made it possible to image the ring-like structure in M87 for the first time at the wavelength of 3.5 mm. The diameter of the ring measured by the GMVA is 64 microarcseconds, which corresponds to the size of a small (5-inch/13-cm) selfie ring light as seen by an astronaut on the Moon looking back at Earth. This diameter is 50 percent larger than what was seen in observations by the Event Horizon Telescope at 1.3 mm, in accordance with the expectations for the emission from relativistic plasma in this region.

"With the greatly improved imaging capabilities by adding ALMA and GLT into GMVA observations, we have gained a new perspective. We do indeed see the triple-ridged jet that we knew about from earlier VLBI observations,” says Thomas Krichbaum from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn. "But now we can see how the jet emerges from the emission ring around the central supermassive black hole and we can measure the ring diameter also at another (longer) wavelength.”

The jet of M87 was first observed in 1918 by Heber Curtis, who detected an "amorphous type of nebulosity" emanating from the galaxy. However, it was not until the 1950s and 60s, with the development of radio telescopes, that the jet was seen more clearly and identified as a powerful source of radio emission. In 1979 Jean-Pierre Luminet first predicted the possibility of observing the black hole shadow in M87, which was dramatically confirmed in 2019 with the first image of a black hole released by the Event Horizon Telescope. “Now we have completed another important chapter in the study of M87 by obtaining the first glimpse of how its central black hole is feeding from its accretion disk and launches the cosmic jet that was first observed more than a century ago”, says José Luis Gómez from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia.

The light from M87 is produced by the interplay between highly energetic electrons and magnetic fields, a phenomenon called synchrotron radiation. The new observations, at a wavelength of 3.5 mm, reveal more details about the location and energy of these electrons. They also tell us something about the nature of the black hole itself: it is not very hungry. It consumes matter at a low rate, converting only a small fraction of it into radiation. Keiichi Asada of Academia Sinica, Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics explains: "To understand the physical origin of the bigger and thicker ring, we had to use computer simulations to test different scenarios. As a result, we concluded that the larger extent of the ring is associated with the accretion flow.”

Kazuhiro Hada from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan adds: "We also find something surprising in our data: the radiation from the inner region close to the black hole is broader than we expected. This could mean that there is more than just gas falling in. There could also be a wind blowing out, causing turbulence and chaos around the black hole.” 

The quest to learn more about Messier 87 is not over, as further observations and a fleet of powerful telescopes continue to unlock its secrets. “Future observations at millimetre wavelengths will study the time evolution of the M87 black hole and provide a poly-chromatic view of the black hole with multiple colour images in radio light," says Jongho Park of the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute.

“These amazing results are just the beginning of a fascinating era in radio astronomy. Our research team will continue exploring M87, as well as more jetted AGNs, utilizing the groundbreaking resolution that radio interferometric arrays like GMVA, KVN, and EHT can offer by employing observations at 3, 1, and even 0.9 mm in the future”, comments Thalia Traianou from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia.


R.S. Lu et al., A ring-like accretion structure in M87 connecting its black hole and jet, Nature, April 27, 2023, doi:10.1038/s41586-023-05843-w



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