From European Southern Observatory: “2020 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for research with ESO telescopes on Milky Way’s supermassive black hole”

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From European Southern Observatory

6 October 2020

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Email: pio@eso.org

Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez have jointly been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, at the centre of our galaxy. Genzel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and his team have conducted observations of Sagittarius A* for nearly 30 years using a fleet of instruments on European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes.

Sgr A* from ESO VLT.

Genzel shares half of the prize with Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in the US, “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy”, with the other half awarded to Roger Penrose, professor at the University of Oxford in the UK, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

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Roger Penrose, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.
Andrea Ghez, UCLA Galactic Center Group.
Reinhard Genzel, Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, University of California, Berkeley.

“Congratulations to all three Nobel laureates! We are delighted that the research on the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy has been recognised with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. We are proud that the telescopes ESO builds and operates at its observatories in Chile played a key role in this discovery,” says ESO’s Director General Xavier Barcons. “The work done by Reinhard Genzel with ESO telescopes and by Andrea Ghez with the Keck telescopes in Hawaii has enabled unprecedented insight into Sagittarius A*, which confirmed predictions of Einstein’s general relativity.”

ESO has worked in very close collaboration with Genzel and his group for around 30 years. Since the early 1990s, Genzel and his team, in cooperation with ESO, have developed instruments designed to track the orbits of stars in the Sagittarius A* region at the centre of the Milky Way.

They started their campaign in 1992 using the SHARP instrument [N/A] on ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) [below] at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The team later used extremely sensitive instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at the Paranal Observatory, namely NACO, SINFONI and later GRAVITY, to continue their study of Sagittarius A*.

ESO/NACO on Unit Telescope 1 (UT1).

ESO/SINFONI installed at the Cassegrain focus of UT3 on the VLT.

ESO GRAVITY in the VLTI

In 2008, after 16 years of tracking stars orbiting Sagittarius A*, the team delivered the best empirical evidence that a supermassive black hole exists at the centre of our galaxy. Both Genzel’s and Ghez’s groups accurately traced the orbit of one star in particular, S2, which reached the closest distance to Sagittarius A* in May 2018.

Star S0-2 Andrea Ghez Keck/UCLA Galactic Center Group at SGR A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

ESO undertook a number of developments and infrastructure upgrades in Paranal to enable accurate measurements of the position and velocity of S2. The team led by Genzel found the light emitted by the star close to the supermassive black hole was stretched to longer wavelengths, an effect known as gravitational redshift, confirming for the first time Einstein’s general relativity near a supermassive black hole. Earlier this year, the team announced they had seen S2 ‘dance’ around the supermassive black hole, showing its orbit is shaped like a rosette, an effect called Schwarzschild precession that was predicted by Einstein.

Genzel and his team are also involved in the development of instruments that will be installed on ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which will enable them to probe the environment even closer to the supermassive black hole.

See the full article here .


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ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre EEuropean Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

ESO/Cerro LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO/NTT at Cerro La Silla, Chile, at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert.

ESO VLT 4 lasers on Yepun.

Glistening against the awesome backdrop of the night sky above ESO_s Paranal Observatory, four laser beams project out into the darkness from Unit Telescope 4 UT4 of the VLT, a major asset of the Adaptive Optics system.

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

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

ESO/MPIfR APEX high on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region, at an altitude of over 4,800 m (15,700 ft).

A novel gamma ray telescope under construction on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. a large project known as the Čerenkov Telescope Array, composed of hundreds of similar telescopes to be situated in the Canary Islands and Chile. The telescope on Mount Hopkins will be fitted with a prototype high-speed camera, assembled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and capable of taking pictures at a billion frames per second. Credit: Vladimir Vassiliev.