From ALMA: “Event Horizon Telescope Images of a Black-Hole Powered Jet”

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

From ALMA

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Illustration of multiwavelength 3C 279 jet structure in April 2017. The observing epochs, arrays, and wavelengths are noted at each panel. Credit: J.Y. Kim (MPIfR), Boston University Blazar Program (VLBA and GMVA), and Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

Something is Lurking in the Heart of Quasar 3C 279. One year ago, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration published the first image of a black hole in the nearby radio galaxy Messier 87.

Mesier 87*, The first image of a black hole. This is the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87. Image via JPL/ Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

Now the collaboration has extracted new information from the EHT data of the far quasar 3C 279: they observed in the finest detail ever a relativistic jet that is believed to originate from the vicinity of a supermassive black hole. In their analysis, which was led by astronomer Jae-Young Kim from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, they studied the jet’s fine-scale morphology close to the jet base where highly variable gamma-ray emission is thought to originate. The technique used for observing the jet is called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). The results are published in the coming issue of “Astronomy & Astrophysics, April 2020.

The EHT collaboration continues extracting information from the groundbreaking data collected in its global campaign in April 2017. One target of the observations was the quasar 3C 279, a galaxy 5 billion light-years away, in the constellation Virgo that scientists classify as a quasar because a point of light at its center shines ultra-bright and flickers as massive amounts of gases and stars fall into the giant black hole there. The black hole is about one billion times the mass of the Sun, that is, 200 more massive than our Galactic Centre black hole. It is shredding the gas and stars that come near into an inferred accretion disk and we see it is squirting some of the gas back out in two fine fire-hose-like jets of plasma at velocities approaching the speed of light. This tells of enormous forces at play in the center.

The EHT collaboration continues extracting information from the groundbreaking data collected in its global campaign in April 2017. One target of the observations was the quasar 3C 279, a galaxy 5 billion light-years away, in the constellation Virgo that scientists classify as a quasar because a point of light at its center shines ultra-bright and flickers as massive amounts of gases and stars fall into the giant black hole there. The black hole is about one billion times the mass of the Sun, that is, 200 more massive than our Galactic Centre black hole. It is shredding the gas and stars that come near into an inferred accretion disk and we see it is squirting some of the gas back out in two fine fire-hose-like jets of plasma at velocities approaching the speed of light. This tells of enormous forces at play in the center.

The interpretation of the observations is challenging. Motions different than the jet direction, and apparently as fast as about 20 times the speed of light are difficult to reconcile with the early understanding of the source, this suggests traveling shocks or instabilities in a bent, possibly rotating jet, which also emits at high energies, such gamma-rays.

The telescopes contributing to this result were ALMA, APEX, the IRAM 30-meter telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope, the Submillimeter Array, the Submillimeter Telescope, and the South Pole Telescope.

The telescopes work together using a technique called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). This synchronizes facilities around the world and exploits the rotation of our planet to form one huge, Earth-size telescope. VLBI allows the EHT to achieve a resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds — equivalent to identifying an orange on Earth as seen by an astronaut from the Moon. The data analysis to transform raw data to an image required specific computers (or correlators), hosted by the MPIfR in Bonn and the MIT Haystack Observatory.

Anton Zensus, Director at the MPIfR and Chair of the EHT Collaboration Board, stresses the achievement as a global effort: “Last year we could present the first image of the shadow of a black hole. Now we see unexpected changes in the shape of the jet in 3C 279, and we are not done yet. We are working on the analysis of data from the centre of our Galaxy in Sgr A*, and on other active galaxies such as Centaurus A, OJ 287, and NGC 1052. As we told last year: this is just the beginning.”

Opportunities to conduct EHT observing campaigns occur once a year in early Northern springtime, but the March/April 2020 campaign had to be cancelled in response to the CoViD-19 global outbreak. In announcing the cancellation Michael Hecht, astronomer from the MIT/Haystack Observatory and EHT Deputy Project Director, concluded that: “We will now devote our full concentration to completion of scientific publications from the 2017 data and dive into the analysis of data obtained with the enhanced EHT array in 2018. We are looking forward to observations with the EHT array expanded to eleven observatories in the spring of 2021”.

Additional Information

The Event Horizon Telescope international collaboration announced the first-ever image of a black hole at the heart of the radio galaxy Messier 87 on April 10, 2019 by creating a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Supported by considerable international investment, the EHT links existing telescopes using novel systems — creating a new instrument with the highest angular resolving power that has yet been achieved.

The individual telescopes involved in the EHT collaboration are: the Atacama Large Millimetre Telescope (ALMA), the Atacama Pathfinder EXplorer (APEX), the Greenland Telescope (since 2018), the IRAM 30-meter Telescope, the IRAM NOEMA Observatory (expected 2021), the Kitt Peak Telescope (expected 2021), the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), the Submillimeter Array (SMA), the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), and the South Pole Telescope (SPT).

The EHT consortium consists of 13 stakeholder institutes; the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, the East Asian Observatory, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique, Large Millimeter Telescope, Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, MIT Haystack Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Radboud University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

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The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan.

ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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