The imaging of Sagittarius A*: A monumental scientific achievement

On Thursday, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration released the imagery of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*. It is a direct detection of one of the most elusive types of astronomical objects and the culmination of more than a century of theoretical and experimental astronomical studies. The results are also a brilliant demonstration of the possibilities engendered by human labor coordinated on an international and scientific basis.

More than 300 astronomers and hundreds of engineers and support staff from 60 institutions across 20 countries and regions on all seven continents made the observations, processed the data and maintained the technical infrastructure needed for such an immense undertaking. After the observations of Sgr A* were made in 2017, thousands of terabytes of data were transported to the MIT Haystack Observatory and the Max Planck Institute of Study to be processed and analyzed on some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. Five years of labor proved necessary to characterize and understand the results.

X-ray and infrared images from NASA’s Chandra and Hubble space telescopes, respectively, were used to create this image of the Milky Way’s galactic core to complement and expand upon the imagery produced by the Event Horizon Telescope of the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO, NASA/HST/STScI, Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

The immediate result is the product of more than two decades of planning by the collaboration, which was launched in 2009 with the primary goal of observing the two largest black holes in the sky as seen from Earth, Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) and the black hole at the center of galaxy Messier 87. To do so, the collaboration incorporated radio telescopes from around the world and combined their observing capabilities to view astronomical objects never before directly seen.

The telescopes involved in capturing the data needed to produce the final graphic include the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment in Chile, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona, the IRAM 30m telescope in Spain, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico, and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica.

The graphic produced is also a resounding blow against all forms of irrationalist thought, whether it be the mysticism of religious obscurantism or postmodernism and its assertion that all “narratives” are equally valid. There is in fact an objective, material reality, which is governed by physical, knowable laws.

Further and more in-depth results are expected to follow in the coming months and years. EHT completed in March its latest observing campaign, which included three new telescopes that will allow for even better imaging. And now that data has been collected and released on the collaboration’s two main targets, it will explore other even more esoteric regions of the Universe, particularly the galactic-scale energetic jets produced by supermassive black holes as large amounts of gas and dust flow into them .

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