Shedding Light on Darkness: Historic First Direct Image of a Black Hole Emitting a Powerful Jet

Black Hole in M87 Galaxy Powerful Jet

Scientists observing the compact radio core of M87 have discovered new details about the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. In this artist’s conception, the black hole’s massive jet is seen rising up from the center of the black hole. The observations on which this illustration is based represent the first time that the jet and the black hole shadow have been imaged together, giving scientists new insights into how black holes can launch these powerful jets. Credit: S. Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

In a historic first, astronomers have simultaneously imaged the shadow and jet of the supermassive black hole in galaxy M87, providing new insights into how black holes produce such energetic jets. This milestone was achieved using a global network of radio telescopes, promising more significant discoveries in the future.

For the first time, astronomers have observed, in the same image, the shadow of the black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87) and the powerful jet expelled from it. The observations were done in 2018 with telescopes from the Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), of which ESO is a partner, and the Greenland Telescope (GLT). Thanks to this new image, astronomers can better understand how black holes can launch such energetic jets.

Most galaxies harbor a supermassive black hole at their center. While black holes are known for engulfing matter in their immediate vicinity, they can also launch powerful jets of matter that extend beyond the galaxies that they live in. Understanding how black holes create such enormous jets has been a long-standing problem in astronomy. “We know that jets are ejected from the region surrounding black holes,” says Ru-Sen Lu from the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China, “but we still do not fully understand how this actually happens. To study this directly we need to observe the origin of the jet as close as possible to the black hole.”

M87 Black Hole Jet and Shadow

This image shows the jet and shadow of the black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy together for the first time. The observations were obtained with telescopes from the Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), of which ESO is a partner, and the Greenland Telescope. This image gives scientists the context needed to understand how the powerful jet is formed. The new observations also revealed that the black hole’s ring, shown here in the inset, is 50% larger than the ring observed at shorter radio wavelengths by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). This suggests that in the new image, we see more of the material that is falling toward the black hole than what we could see with the EHT. Credit: R.-S. Lu (SHAO), E. Ros (MPIfR), S. Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The new image published today shows precisely this for the first time: how the base of a jet connects with the matter swirling around a supermassive black hole. The target is the galaxy M87, located 55 million light-years away in our cosmic neighborhood, and home to a black hole 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. Previous observations had managed to separately image the region close to the black hole and the jet, but this is the first time both features have been observed together. “This new image completes the picture by showing the region around the black hole and the jet at the same time,” adds Jae-Young Kim from the Kyungpook National University in South Korea and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany.

With the help of ALMA, astronomers have obtained a new image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy. Credit: ESO

The image was obtained with the GMVA, ALMA, and the GLT, forming a network of radio telescopes around the globe working together as a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Such a large network can discern very small details in the region around M87’s black hole.

Black Hole Anatomy

This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. This thin disc of rotating material consists of the leftovers of a Sun-like star which was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. The black hole is labeled, showing the anatomy of this fascinating object. Credit: ESO

The new image shows the jet emerging near the black hole, as well as what scientists call the shadow of the black hole. As matter orbits the black hole, it heats up and emits light. The black hole bends and captures some of this light, creating a ring-like structure around the black hole as seen from Earth. The darkness at the center of the ring is the black hole shadow, which was first imaged by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) in 2017. Both this new image and the EHT one combine data taken with several radio telescopes worldwide, but the image released today shows radio light emitted at a longer wavelength than the EHT one: 3.5 mm instead of 1.3 mm. “At this wavelength, we can see how the jet emerges from the ring of emission around the central supermassive black hole,” says Thomas Krichbaum of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

Messier 87 Very Large Telescope

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 was not identified as a galaxy until the 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 theorize it collected from its smaller neighbors.
Just as with all other large galaxies, M87 has a supermassive black hole at its center. The mass of the black hole at the center 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.
Credit: ESO

The size of the ring observed by the GMVA network is roughly 50% larger in comparison to the Event Horizon Telescope image. “To understand the physical origin of the bigger and thicker ring, we had to use computer simulations to test different scenarios,” explains Keiichi Asada from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. The results suggest the new image reveals more of the material that is falling toward the black hole than what could be observed with the EHT.

This zoom video starts with a view of ALMA and zooms in on the heart of the M87 galaxy, showing successively more detailed observations. The final image shows the shadow of the black hole and a powerful jet expelled from it, together for the first time in the same image. The observations were obtained with telescopes from the Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), ALMA, of which ESO is a partner, and the Greenland Telescope. Credit: ESO

These new observations of M87’s black hole were conducted in 2018 with the GMVA, which consists of 14 radio telescopes in Europe and North America.[1] In addition, two other facilities were linked to the GMVA: the Greenland Telescope and ALMA, of which ESO is a partner. ALMA consists of 66 antennas in the Chilean Atacama desert, and it played a key role in these observations. The data collected by all these telescopes worldwide are combined using a technique called interferometry, which synchronizes the signals taken by each individual facility. But to properly capture the actual shape of an astronomical object it’s important that the telescopes are spread all over the Earth. The GMVA telescopes are mostly aligned East-to-West, so the addition of ALMA in the Southern hemisphere proved essential to capture this image of the jet and shadow of M87’s black hole. “Thanks to ALMA’s location and sensitivity, we could reveal the black hole shadow and see deeper into the emission of the jet at the same time,” explains Lu.

Messier 87 in the constellation of Virgo

This chart shows the position of giant galaxy Messier 87 in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin). The map shows most of the stars visible to the unaided eye under good conditions. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

Future observations with this network of telescopes will continue to unravel how supermassive black holes can launch powerful jets. “We plan to observe the region around the black hole at the center of M87 at different radio wavelengths to further study the emission of the jet,” says Eduardo Ros from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Such simultaneous observations would allow the team to disentangle the complicated processes that happen near the supermassive black hole. “The coming years will be exciting, as we will be able to learn more about what happens near one of the most mysterious regions in the Universe,” concludes Ros.


  1. The Korean VLBI Network is now also part of the GMVA, but did not participate in the observations reported here.

More information

Reference: “A ring-like accretion structure in M87 connecting its black hole and jet” by Ru-Sen Lu, Keiichi Asada, Thomas P. Krichbaum, Jongho Park, Fumie Tazaki, Hung-Yi Pu, Masanori Nakamura, Andrei Lobanov, Kazuhiro Hada, Kazunori Akiyama, Jae-Young Kim, Ivan Marti-Vidal, José L. Gómez, Tomohisa Kawashima, Feng Yuan, Eduardo Ros, Walter Alef, Silke Britzen, Michael Bremer, Avery E. Broderick, Akihiro Doi, Gabriele Giovannini, Marcello Giroletti, Paul T. P. Ho, Mareki Honma, David H. Hughes, Makoto Inoue, Wu Jiang, Motoki Kino, Shoko Koyama, Michael Lindqvist, Jun Liu, Alan P. Marscher, Satoki Matsushita, Hiroshi Nagai, Helge Rottmann, Tuomas Savolainen, Karl-Friedrich Schuster, Zhi-Qiang Shen, Pablo de Vicente, R. Craig Walker, Hai Yang, J. Anton Zensus, Juan Carlos Algaba, Alexander Allardi, Uwe Bach, Ryan Berthold, Dan Bintley, Do-Young Byun, Carolina Casadio, Shu-Hao Chang, Chih-Cheng Chang, Song-Chu Chang, Chung-Chen Chen, Ming-Tang Chen, Ryan Chilson, Tim C. Chuter, John Conway, Geoffrey B. Crew, Jessica T. Dempsey, Sven Dornbusch, Aaron Faber, Per Friberg, Javier González García, Miguel Gómez Garrido, Chih-Chiang Han, Kuo-Chang Han, Yutaka Hasegawa, Ruben Herrero-Illana, Yau-De Huang, Chih-Wei L. Huang, Violette Impellizzeri, Homin Jiang, Hao Jinchi, Taehyun Jung, Juha Kallunki, Petri Kirves, Kimihiro Kimura, Jun Yi Koay, Patrick M. Koch, Carsten Kramer, Alex Kraus, Derek Kubo, Cheng-Yu Kuo, Chao-Te Li, Lupin Chun-Che Lin, Ching-Tang Liu, Kuan-Yu Liu, Wen-Ping Lo, Li-Ming Lu, Nicholas MacDonald, Pierre Martin-Cocher, Hugo Messias, Zheng Meyer-Zhao, Anthony Minter, Dhanya G. Nair, Hiroaki Nishioka, Timothy J. Norton, George Nystrom, Hideo Ogawa, Peter Oshiro, Nimesh A. Patel, Ue-Li Pen, Yurii Pidopryhora, Nicolas Pradel, Philippe A. Raffin, Ramprasad Rao, Ignacio Ruiz, Salvador Sanchez, Paul Shaw, William Snow, T. K. Sridharan, Ranjani Srinivasan, Belén Tercero, Pablo Torne, Efthalia Traianou, Jan Wagner, Craig Walther, Ta-Shun Wei, Jun Yang and Chen-Yu Yu, 26 April 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05843-w

This research has made use of data obtained with the Global Millimeter VLBI Array (GMVA), which consists of telescopes operated by the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR), Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM), Onsala Space Observatory (OSO), Metsähovi Radio Observatory (MRO), Yebes, the Korean VLBI Network (KVN), the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA).

The team is composed of Ru-Sen Lu (Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, People’s Republic of China [Shanghai]; Key Laboratory of Radio Astronomy, People’s Republic of China [KLoRA]; Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Germany [MPIfR]), Keiichi Asada (Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, ROC [IoAaA]), Thomas P. Krichbaum (MPIfR), Jongho Park (IoAaA; Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Republic of Korea [KAaSSI]), Fumie Tazaki (Simulation Technology Development Department, Tokyo Electron Technology Solutions Ltd., Japan; Mizusawa VLBI Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Japan [Mizusawa]), Hung-Yi Pu (Department of Physics, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan, ROC; IoAaA; Center of Astronomy and Gravitation, National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan, ROC), Masanori Nakamura (National Institute of Technology, Hachinohe College, Japan; IoAaA), Andrei Lobanov (MPIfR), Kazuhiro Hada (Mizusawa; Department of Astronomical Science, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Japan), Kazunori Akiyama (Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University, USA; Massachusetts Institute of Technology Haystack Observatory, USA [Haystack]; National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Japan [NAOoJ]), Jae-Young Kim (Department of Astronomy and Atmospheric Sciences, Kyungpook National University, Republic of Korea; KAaSSI; MPIfR), Ivan Marti-Vidal (Departament d’Astronomia i Astrofísica, Universitat de València, Spain; Observatori Astronòmic, Universitat de València, Spain), Jose L. Gomez (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía-CSIC, Spain [IAA]), Tomohisa Kawashima (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, The University of Tokyo, Japan), Feng Yuan (Shanghai; Key Laboratory for Research in Galaxies and Cosmology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, People’s Republic of China; School of Astronomy and Space Sciences, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, People’s Republic of China [SoAaSS]), Eduardo Ros (MPIfR), Walter Alef (MPIfR), Silke Britzen (MPIfR), Michael Bremer (Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique, France [IRAMF]), Avery E. Broderick (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Waterloo, Canada [Waterloo]; Waterloo Centre for Astrophysics, University of Waterloo, Canada; Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Canada), Akihiro Doi (The Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Japan; Department of Space and Astronautical Science, SOKENDAI, Japan [SOKENDAI]), Gabriele Giovannini (Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Università di Bologna, Italy; Istituto di Radio Astronomia, INAF, Bologna, Italy [INAF]), Marcello Giroletti (INAF), Paul T. P. Ho (IoAaA), Mareki Honma (Mizusawa; Hachinohe; Department of Astronomy, The University of Tokyo, Japan), David H. Hughes (Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Mexico), Makoto Inoue (IoAaA), Wu Jiang (Shanghai), Motoki Kino (NAOoJ; Kogakuin University of Technology and Engineering, Japan), Shoko Koyama (Niigata University, Japan; IoAaA), Michael Lindqvist (Department of Space, Earth and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden [Chalmers]), Jun Liu (MPIfR), Alan P. Marscher (Institute for Astrophysical Research, Boston University, USA), Satoki Matsushita (IoAaA), Hiroshi Nagai (NAOoJ; SOKENDAI), Helge Rottmann (MPIfR), Tuomas Savolainen (Department of Electronics and Nanoengineering, Aalto University, Finland; Metsähovi Radio Observatory, Finland [Metsähovi]; MPIfR), Karl-Friedrich Schuster (IRAMF), Zhi-Qiang Shen (Shanghai; KLoRA), Pablo de Vicente (Observatorio de Yebes, Spain [Yebes]), R. Craig Walker (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Socorro, USA), Hai Yang (Shanghai; SoAaSS), J. Anton Zensus (MPIfR), Juan Carlos Algaba (Department of Physics, Universiti Malaya, Malaysia), Alexander Allardi (University of Vermont, USA), Uwe Bach (MPIfR), Ryan Berthold (East Asian Observatory, USA [EAO]), Dan Bintley (EAO), Do-Young Byun (KAaSSI; University of Science and Technology, Daejeon, Republic of Korea), Carolina Casadio (Institute of Astrophysics, Heraklion, Greece; Department of Physics, University of Crete, Greece), Shu-Hao Chang (IoAaA), Chih-Cheng Chang (National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, Taiwan, ROC [Chung-Shan]), Song-Chu Chang (Chung-Shan), Chung-Chen Chen (IoAaA), Ming-Tang Chen (Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica, USA [IAAAS]), Ryan Chilson (IAAAS), Tim C. Chuter (EAO), John Conway (Chalmers), Geoffrey B. Crew (Haystack), Jessica T. Dempsey (EAO; Astron, The Netherlands [Astron]), Sven Dornbusch (MPIfR), Aaron Faber (Western University, Canada), Per Friberg (EAO), Javier González García (Yebes), Miguel Gómez Garrido (Yebes), Chih-Chiang Han (IoAaA), Kuo-Chang Han (System Development Center, National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, Taiwan, ROC), Yutaka Hasegawa (Osaka Metropolitan University, Japan [Osaka]), Ruben Herrero-Illana (European Southern Observatory, Chile), Yau-De Huang (IoAaA), Chih-Wei L. Huang (IoAaA), Violette Impellizzeri (Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands; National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Charlottesville, USA [NRAOC]), Homin Jiang (IoAaA), Hao Jinchi (Electronic Systems Research Division, National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, Taiwan, ROC), Taehyun Jung (KAaSSI), Juha Kallunki (Metsähovi), Petri Kirves (Metsähovi), Kimihiro Kimura (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Japan), Jun Yi Koay (IoAaA), Patrick M. Koch (IoAaA), Carsten Kramer (IRAMF), Alex Kraus (MPIfR), Derek Kubo (IAAAS), Cheng-Yu Kuo (National Sun Yat-Sen University, Taiwan, ROC), Chao-Te Li (IoAaA), Lupin Chun-Che Lin (Department of Physics, National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, ROC ), Ching-Tang Liu (IoAaA), Kuan-Yu Liu (IoAaA), Wen-Ping Lo (Department of Physics, National Taiwan University, Taiwan, ROC; IoAaA), Li-Ming Lu (Chung-Shan), Nicholas MacDonald (MPIfR), Pierre Martin-Cocher (IoAaA), Hugo Messias (Joint ALMA Observatory, Chile; Osaka), Zheng Meyer-Zhao (Astron; IoAaA), Anthony Minter (Green Bank Observatory, USA), Dhanya G. Nair (Astronomy Department, Universidad de Concepción, Chile), Hiroaki Nishioka (IoAaA), Timothy J. Norton (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, USA [CfA]), George Nystrom (IAAAS), Hideo Ogawa (Osaka), Peter Oshiro (IAAAS), Nimesh A. Patel (CfA), Ue-Li Pen (IoAaA), Yurii Pidopryhora (MPIfR; Argelander-Institut für Astronomie, Universität Bonn, Germany), Nicolas Pradel (IoAaA), Philippe A. Raffin (IAAAS), Ramprasad Rao (CfA), Ignacio Ruiz (Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique, Granada, Spain [IRAMS]), Salvador Sanchez (IRAMS), Paul Shaw (IoAaA), William Snow (IAAAS), T. K. Sridharan (NRAOC; CfA), Ranjani Srinivasan (CfA; IoAaA), Belén Tercero (Yebes), Pablo Torne (IRAMS), Thalia Traianou (IAA; MPIfR), Jan Wagner (MPIfR), Craig Walther (EAO), Ta-Shun Wei (IoAaA), Jun Yang (Chalmers), Chen-Yu Yu (IoAaA).

1 Comment on "Shedding Light on Darkness: Historic First Direct Image of a Black Hole Emitting a Powerful Jet"

  1. Rotting Corpse | April 26, 2023 at 8:12 pm | Reply

    Your Mom has a powerful black hole.

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