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STFC team enables astronomers to produce the first ever image of a black hole

10th April 2019

The international team of astronomers behind the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes designed to image black holes – have succeeded in producing the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

This breakthrough in astronomy reveals an image of a black hole 55 million light years from Earth and which has a mass 6.5 billion times that of our sun.

The EHT project links telescopes from around the globe to form an unprecedented Earth-sized virtual telescope and members of STFC’s technology and engineering teams were instrumental in supporting, developing and building key equipment at a number of the EHT partner sites.

Dr Anna Orlowska Head of STFC’s Applied Science Division and Acting Director of Technology Department  said “For STFC technology staff to have played even a small part in such a tremendous achievement is incredibly rewarding. Many of the technology projects we contribute to have very long project timelines and it is often many years after our work is complete before we can see how it has led to major scientific breakthroughs such as this. STFC technology staff at our Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) and UK Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) sites successfully delivered a series of complex engineering and software tasks for these sites and we are very proud that it has led to the first ever image of a black hole”.

One of the sites STFC contributed to was the ESO Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) project in Chile. The Cryogenics group at STFC’s RAL site designed and delivered over seventy 1m diameter cryostats for ALMA. These cryostats house 10 receivers mounted on quick-release cartridges cooled down to 4K. The STFC RAL Space Department (Directed by Professor Christopher Mutlow) hosted the European Front-End Integration Centre, which assembled and tested 26 of the highly complex ALMA front-end detection systems and also supplied over 1,000 advanced photonic mixer devices that ensure coherent operation of the array. ALMA represents the largest assembly of superconducting electronics ever built, and detecting light at wavelengths between 0.32 mm and 3.6 mm. These have allowed astronomers to observe cold regions of the universe with unprecedented clarity.

STFC’s UK ATC team also provided essential software observing preparation and data processing tools for ALMA that the scientists rely on to make observations and turn the raw data into a useable form.

Former ALMA UK Project Manager, Professor Brian Ellison, said “The UK contribution to the ALMA array construction has been instrumental in its formation as a world-class observation tool. It is a testament to the skill and knowhow of expert UK technical teams, in addition to that of our international partners, that ALMA has been able to support this important scientific advancement.”

Thirty years ago, RAL Technology also built the James Clerk Maxell Telescope (JCMT) located in Hawaii, another of the telescopes used to develop the black hole image. UK ATC, RAL and Cambridge, Kent and Queen Mary university groups delivered key instruments to this telescope during its operation under STFC. used for this observation. Additionally, technical experts at RAL have been collaborating with a number of the other observatories that form the EHT and will shortly deploy a new receiver system at the Large Millimetre Telescope (LMT), Mexico.

You can read more about the breakthrough on the ESO website.

Last updated: 15 April 2019

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