The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, who produced the first ever image of a black hole released in 2019, has today a new view of the massive object at the centre of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy: how it looks in polarised light. This is the first time astronomers have been able to measure polarisation, a signature of magnetic fields, this close to the edge of a black hole. (EHT Collaboration)

Black Hole Seen Clearly in Historic New Direct Image

Using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) to observe the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87), astronomers have once again produced another first in the field of astronomy and cosmology.

Following up on the image of M87’s black hole published two years ago–the first time a black hole was imaged directly–astronomers at the EHT collaboration have captured a stunning image of the same black hole, this time in polarized light.

The achievement marks more than just an impressively sharp and clear second image of this black hole however–it also represents that first-time researchers have been able to capture the polarization of light around such an object.

Not only does this reveal details of the magnetic field that surrounds the supermassive black hole, but it also could give cosmologists the key to explaining how energetic jets launch from the core of this distant galaxy.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, who produced the first ever image of a black hole released in 2019, has today a new view of the massive object at the centre of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy: how it looks in polarised light. This is the first time astronomers have been able to measure polarisation, a signature of magnetic fields, this close to the edge of a black hole. (EHT Collaboration)
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, which produced the first-ever image of a black hole released in 2019, has today a new view of the massive object at the centre of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy: how it looks in polarised light. This is the first time astronomers have been able to measure polarisation, a signature of magnetic fields, this close to the edge of a black hole.  This image shows the polarised view of the black hole in M87. The lines mark the orientation of polarisation, which is related to the magnetic field around the shadow of the black hole. (EHT Collaboration)

“M87 is a truly special object!  It is tied for the largest black hole in the sky with the black hole in our galaxy–Sagittarius A*, ” Geoffrey C. Bower, EHT Project Scientist and assistant research astronomer at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, tells ZME Science. “It’s about one thousand times further away but also one thousand times more massive.

“The M87 black hole’s home is in the centre of the Virgo Cluster, the nearest massive cluster of galaxies, each with its own black hole. This makes it a great laboratory for studying the growth of galaxies and black holes.”

Geoffrey C. Bower, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Along with Monika Mościbrodzka, Coordinator of the EHT Polarimetry Working Group and Assistant Professor at Radboud University, Netherlands, Bower is one of the authors on two papers detailing the breakthrough published in the latest edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Messier 87 (M87) is an enormous elliptical galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth, visible in the constellation Virgo. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781, but not identified as a galaxy until 20th Century. At double the mass of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and containing as many as ten times more stars, it is amongst the largest galaxies in the local universe. Besides its raw size, M87 has some very unique characteristics. For example, it contains an unusually high number of globular clusters: while our Milky Way contains under 200, M87 has about 12,000, which some scientists theorise it collected from its smaller neighbours. Just as with all other large galaxies, M87 has a supermassive black hole at its centre. The mass of the black hole at the centre of a galaxy is related to the mass of the galaxy overall, so it shouldn’t be surprising that M87’s black hole is one of the most massive known. The black hole also may explain one of the galaxy’s most energetic features: a relativistic jet of matter being ejected at nearly the speed of light. The black hole was the object of paradigm-shifting observations by the Event Horizon Telescope. The EHT chose the object as the target of its observations for two reasons. While the EHT’s resolution is incredible, even it has its limits. As more massive black holes are also larger in diameter, M87's central black hole presented an unusually large target—meaning that it could be imaged more easily than smaller black holes closer by. The other reason for choosing it, however, was decidedly more Earthly. M87 appears fairly close to the celestial equator when viewed from our planet, making it visible in most of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This maximised the number of telescopes in the EHT that could observe it, increasing the resolution of the final image. This image was captured by FORS2 on ESO’s Very Large Telescope as part of the Cosmic Gems programme, an outreach initiative that (ESO)
Messier 87 (M87) is an enormous elliptical galaxy located about 55 million light-years from Earth, visible in the constellation Virgo and home of the black hole imaged by the EHT team (ESO)

“We are now seeing the next crucial piece of evidence to understand how magnetic fields behave around black holes, and how activity in this very compact region of space can drive powerful jets that extend far beyond the galaxy,” says Mościbrodzka.

“We have never see magnetic fields directly so close to the event horizon,” the astronomer tells ZME Science.


“We now, for the first time, have information on how magnetic field lines are oriented close to the event horizon and how strong these magnetic fields are. All this information is new.”

Deeper Into the Heart of M87

The release of the first image of a black hole on the 10th of April 2019 marked a milestone event in science, and ever since then, the team behind that image has worked hard to delve deeper into M87’s black hole. This second image is the culmination of this quest. The observation of the polarized light allows us to better understand the information in that prior image and the physics of black holes.

This composite image shows three views of the central region of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy in polarised light. The galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its centre and is famous for its jets, that extend far beyond the galaxy.  One of the polarised-light images, obtained with the Chile-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows part of the jet in polarised light. This image captures the part of the jet, with a size of 6000 light years, closer to the centre of the galaxy. The other polarised light images zoom in closer to the supermassive black hole: the middle view covers a region about one light year in size and was obtained with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) in the US.  The most zoomed-in view was obtained by linking eight telescopes around the world to create a virtual Earth-sized telescope, the Event Horizon Telescope or EHT. This allows astronomers to see very close to the supermassive black hole, into the region where the jets are launched.  The lines mark the orientation of polarisation, which is related to the magnetic field in the regions imaged.The ALMA data provides a description of the magnetic field structure along the jet. Therefore the combined information from the EHT and ALMA allows astronomers to investigate the role of magnetic fields from the vicinity of the event horizon (as probed with the EHT on light-day scales) to far beyond the M87 galaxy along its powerful jets (as probed with ALMA on scales of thousand of light-years). The values in GHz refer to the frequencies of light at which the different observations were made. The horizontal lines show the scale (in light years) of each of the individual images. (EHT Collaboration)
This composite image shows three views of the central region of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy in polarised light. The galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its centre and is famous for its jets, that extend far beyond the galaxy.  (EHT Collaboration)

“Light is an electromagnetic wave which has amplitude and direction of oscillation or polarization,” explains Mościbrodzka. “With the EHT we observed that light in the M87’s surrounding ring is polarized meaning that waves oscillation have a preferred direction.”

This polarization is a property of synchrotron radiation that is produced in the vicinity of this black hole. Polarization occurs when light passes through a filter–think of polarized sunglasses blocking out light and thus giving you a clearer view–thus the polarization of light in this picture accounts for this clearer view of M87’s black hole, which reveals a great deal of information about the black hole itself.

“The polarization of the synchrotron light tells us about the orientation of magnetic fields. So by measuring light polarization we can map out the magnetic fields around the black hole.”

Monika Mościbrodzka, Coordinator of the EHT Polarimetry Working Group and Assistant Professor, Radboud University

Capturing such an image of polarized light at a distance of 55 million light-years is no mean feat, and is only possible with the eight linked telescopes across the globe that comprise the EHT. Together these telescopes–including the 66 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)–form a virtual telescope that is as large as the Earth itself with a resolution equivalent to reading a business card on the Moon.

This image shows the contribution of ALMA and APEX to the EHT. The left hand image shows a reconstruction of the black hole image using the full array of the Event Horizon Telescope (including ALMA and APEX); the right-hand image shows what the reconstruction would look like without data from ALMA and APEX. The difference clearly shows the crucial role that ALMA and APEX played in the observations. (EHT Collaboration)
This image shows the contribution of ALMA and APEX to the EHT. The left hand image shows a reconstruction of the black hole image using the full array of the Event Horizon Telescope (including ALMA and APEX); the right-hand image shows what the reconstruction would look like without data from ALMA and APEX. The difference clearly shows the crucial role that ALMA and APEX played in the observations. (EHT Collaboration)

“As a virtual telescope that is effectively as large as our planet the EHT has a resolution power than no other telescope has,” says Mościbrodzka. “The EHT is observing the edge of what is known to humans, the edge of space and time. And for the second time, it has allowed us to bring to the public the images of this black hole.”

This image–as the above comparison shows– has had its clarity enhanced immensely by calibration with data provided by the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX).

Of course, these magnetic fields are responsible for much more than just giving us a crystal clear image of the black hole they surround. They also govern many of the physical processes that make black holes such powerful and fascinating events–including one of M87’s most mysterious features.

How Magnetic Fields Help Black Holes ‘Feed’

The M87 galaxy–55 million light years from Earth– is notable for its powerful astrophysical jets that blast out of its core and extend for 5000 light-years. Researchers believe that these jets are caused when some of the matter at the edge of the black hole escapes consumption.

Whilst other matter falls to the surface of the central black hole and disappears to the central singularity, this escaping matter is launched into space as these remarkable jets.

This artist’s impression depicts the black hole at the heart of the enormous elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87). This black hole was chosen as the object of paradigm-shifting observations by the Event Horizon Telescope. The superheated material surrounding the black hole is shown, as is the relativistic jet launched by M87’s black hole. 9ESO/M. Kornmesser)
This artist’s impression depicts the black hole at the heart of the enormous elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87). This black hole was chosen as the object of paradigm-shifting observations by the Event Horizon Telescope. The superheated material surrounding the black hole is shown, as is the relativistic jet launched by M87’s black hole. 9ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Even though this is a more than plausible explanation, many questions still remain about the process, namely, how an area that is no bigger than our solar system creates jets that are greater in length than the entire galaxy that surrounds it.

This image of the polarized light around M87’s black hole which offers a glimpse into this inner region finally gives scientists a chance to answer these mysteries.

“Our planet’s magnetosphere prevents ionized particles emitted by the Sun from reaching the Earth’s surface.  In the same way, strong black hole magnetic fields can prevent or slow down the accretion of matter onto the black hole,” Bowers says. “Those strong magnetic fields are also powerful for generating the jets of particles that flow at near the speed of light away from the black hole.”

By mitigating the feeding process of their central black holes, however, these magnetic fields may have an influence that like the jets they create may extend even further than M87 itself. They could be affecting the entire galactic cluster.

“Magnetic fields can play a very important role in how black holes ‘eat.’  If the fields are strong enough, they can prevent inflowing material from reaching the black hole.  They are also important in funnelling matter out into the relativistic jets that burst from the black hole region.  These jets are so powerful that they influence gas dynamics amongst the entire cluster of galaxies surrounding M87.”

Geoffrey C. Bower, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

This means a better understanding of the magnetic fields around M87’s black hole also gives researchers an improved understanding of how the matter behaves at the edge of that black hole and perhaps of how such things affect neighbouring galaxies and their evolution.

And from the image of M87’s black hole the EHT team have developed, it looks clear that of the various models that cosmologists have developed to describe the interaction of matter at the edge of black holes, only those featuring strongly magnetized gases can account for its observed features.

“We have now a better idea about the physical process in the ring visible in the image,” Mościbrodzka says. “We now know more precisely how strong magnetic fields can be near a black hole. We also know more accurately at what rate the black hole is swallowing matter. And we have a better idea of what the black hole might look like in the future.”

We’ve come a long way: on the left the first image of the M87 black hole, released in 2019. On the right this new much sharper image. (EHT)

In terms of what is next for black hole imaging, both Mościbrodzka and Bowers are clear; they have their sights set on a black hole that is closer to home than M87–the one that sits at the centre of the Milky Way, which despite being closer to home, could be a tougher nut to crack in terms of imaging.

“We’re hard at work on a problem that we know everyone wants to see; an image of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy,” says Bowers. “This is really tricky because the gas around the black hole moves so fast that the image may be changing on same the time scale that it takes to snap our picture. We think we know how to handle this problem but it requires a lot of technical innovation.”

Given the advancements already made by the EHT collaboration team, it would be unwise to bet against them achieving this lofty goal at some point in the not too distant future.

“We’ve gone from imagining what happens around black holes to actually imaging it!” Bowers concludes. “In the near future, we’ll be able to show a movie of material orbiting the black hole and getting ejected into a jet. I never thought I would see anything like this.

“Black holes are the simplest but most enigmatic objects in the Universe.  These observations are just the beginning of the road to understanding them.”

Geoffrey C. Bower, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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