Historic Black Hole M87 Is Wobbling, Scientists Say

This is actually pretty big news for the scientific community!
Chris Young

When scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration presented the first-ever picture of a black hole last year, it was hailed as an immense scientific breakthrough. 

Now, the scientists behind that milestone have released a study based on a new analysis of archival data sets of the black hole, M87*, which shows that the space giant, with its mass of 6.5 billion Suns, is wobbling and flickering in the far reaches of space.


Lessons from last year's image of M87*

The results of the analysis, which appeared in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal this week, reveals that the crescent-like shadow surrounding M87* appears to be wobbling. 

The team from the Event Horizon Telescope used lessons learned last year to analyze data sets of the black hole from 2009-2013, some of which had not been previously published.

New analysis of black hole reveals a wobbling shadow
An animation showing consistent ring diameter and movements in orientation measurement, Source: Wielgus et al., ApJ

"With the incredible angular resolution of the Event Horizon Telescope, we could observe a billiard game being played on the Moon and not lose track of the score!" said Maciek Wielgus, lead author of the new paper explained in a press release.

"Last year we saw an image of the shadow of a black hole, consisting of a bright crescent formed by hot plasma swirling around M87*, and a dark central part, where we expect the event horizon of the black hole to be," Wielgus continued. "But those results were based only on observations performed throughout a one-week window in April 2017, which is far too short to see a lot of changes."

The new observations, taken by a set of prototype telescopes from 2009-2013, have allowed for a much more wide-ranging insight into the movements and behaviors of M87*, something which has uncovered a few surprises.

Wobbling space giant opens new possibilities

Overall, the new observations have shown expected results: The black hole's shadow diameter, for example, remained consistent with Einstein's theory of general relativity for a black hole of 6.5 billion solar masses.

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However, while the crescent diameter remained consistent, the EHT team found that the ring was wobbling. While that might not seem like much, it's actually big news for the scientific community.

Historic Black Hole M87 Is Wobbling, Scientists Say
Source: Wielgus et al., ApJ

For the first time, researchers can view the dynamical structure of the accretion flow at such proximity to the black hole's event horizon, in extreme gravity conditions.

Studying this region will allow unprecedented insight into phenomena such as relativistic jet launching, and will allow scientists to formulate new tests for the theory of general relativity.

What's more, there is a treasure trove of data waiting to be explored. The EHT team is already hard at work analyzing further data from the 2018 observations. As EHT project scientist Geoffrey Bower put it, "this is a really exciting time to study black holes!"

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