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Maunakea telescopes helped produce the first image of Milky Way’s black hole

black hole Sagittarius A star
Event Horizon Telescope
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The Sagittarius A* is a black hole located at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

More than 300 researchers and eight telescopes around the world, including two on Maunakea, helped capture the first image of the supermassive black hole in the dark center of our Milky Way galaxy, an international team from the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration announced Thursday.

"We finally have the first look at our Milky Way black hole, Sagittarius A*," the international team said. "It's the dawn of a new era of black hole physics."

event-horizon-telescopes.jpg
D. Marrone University of Arizona
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To produce the image, the team linked together eight existing radio observatories from across the globe to form a single “Earth-sized” virtual telescope.

The collaboration included the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Submillimeter Array on Maunakea on Hawaiʻi Island. Astronomers worked with data collected in 2017 to get the new images. JCMT and SMA provided coverage of the most western point.

Geoffrey Bower, chief scientist for the collaboration’s Hawai‘i operations, said, "The black hole in the center of our galaxy — Sagittarius A* — is about the orbit of Mercury around the sun. That's about the size. And that is very, very far away. It's 27,000 light-years away."

The picture also confirms Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity: The black hole is precisely the size that Einstein's equations dictate — the size of the orbit of Mercury around our sun.

The same telescope group released the first black hole image in 2019, also known as Pōwehi. But that work focused on the center of galaxy Messier 87, about 53 million light-years away from Earth in the Virgo cluster of galaxies. A light-year is 5.9 trillion miles.

Bower said capturing the Milky Way image was more challenging than the first black hole. The mass of the Milky Way’s black hole is more than 1,000 times smaller than Pōwehi.

To get the picture, the eight telescopes had to coordinate so closely “in a process similar to everyone shaking hands with everyone else in the room,” said astronomer Vincent Fish of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The next step is a movie of one of those two black holes, maybe both, Fish said.

Bower also said the new black hole will likely receive a Hawaiian name.

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