Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Surfing a Black Hole


An international team of astronomers [2], lead by researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), has directly observed an otherwise normal star orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Ten years of painstaking measurements have been crowned by a series of unique images obtained by the Adaptive Optics (AO) NAOS-CONICA (NACO) instrument [3] on the 8.2-m VLT YEPUN telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory. It turns out that earlier this year the star approached the central Black Hole to within 17 light-hours - only three times the distance between the Sun and planet Pluto - while travelling at no less than 5000 km/sec.

Previous measurements of the velocities of stars near the center of the Milky Way and variable X-ray emission from this area have provided the strongest evidence so far of the existence of a central Black Hole in our home galaxy and, implicitly, that the dark mass concentrations seen in many nuclei of other galaxies probably are also supermassive black holes. However, it has not yet been possible to exclude several alternative configurations.

In a break-through paper appearing in the research journal Nature on October 10th, 2002, the present team reports their exciting results, including high-resolution images that allow tracing two-thirds of the orbit of a star designated "S2". It is currently the closest observable star to the compact radio source and massive black hole candidate "SgrA*" ("Sagittarius A") at the very center of the Milky Way. The orbital period is just over 15 years.

The new measurements exclude with high confidence that the central dark mass consists of a cluster of unusual stars or elementary particles, and leave little doubt of the presence of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy in which we live.
The full text of this ESO Press Release, with three photos (in different sizes and resolutions) and all weblinks, is available at:

Quasars and Black Holes

Ever since the discovery of the quasars (quasi-stellar radio sources) in 1963, astrophysicists have searched for an explanation of the energy production in these most luminous objects in the Universe. Quasars reside at the centres of galaxies, and it is believed that the enormous energy emitted by these objects is due to matter falling onto a supermassive Black Hole, releasing gravitational energy through intense radiation before that material disappears forever into the hole (in physics terminology: "passes beyond the event horizon" [4]).

To explain the prodigious energy production of quasars and other active galaxies, one needs to conjecture the presence of black holes with masses of one million to several billion times the mass of the Sun. Much evidence has been accumulating during the past years in support of the above "accreting black hole" model for quasars and other galaxies, including the detection of dark mass concentrations in their central regions.

However, an unambiguous proof requires excluding all possible other, non-black hole configurations of the central mass concentration. For this, it is imperative to determine the shape of the gravitational field very close to the central object - and this is not possible for the distant quasars due to technological limitations of the currently available telescopes.

The centre of the Milky Way

The centre of our Milky Way galaxy is located in the southern constallation Sagittarius (The Archer) and is "only" 26,000 light-years away [5]. On high-resolution images, it is possible to discern thousands of individual stars within the central, one light-year wide region (this corresponds to about one-quarter of the distance to "Proxima Centauri", the star nearest to the solar system).

Using the motions of these stars to probe the gravitational field, observations with the 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the ESO La Silla Observatory (Chile) (and subsequently at the 10-m Keck telescope, Hawaii, USA) over the last decade have shown that a mass of about 3 million times that of the Sun is concentrated within a radius of only 10 light-days [5] of the compact radio and X-ray source SgrA* ("Sagittarius A") at the center of the star cluster.

This means that SgrA* is the most likely counterpart of the putative black hole and, at the same time, it makes the Galactic Center the best piece of evidence for the existence of such supermassive black holes. However, those earlier investigations could not exclude several other, non-black hole configurations.

"We then needed even sharper images to settle the issue of whether any configuration other than a black hole is possible and we counted on the ESO VLT telescope to provide those", explains Reinhard Genzel, Director at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching near Munich (Germany) and member of the present team. "The new NAOS-CONICA (NACO) instrument, built in a close collaboration between our institute, the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA: Heidelberg, Germany), ESO and the Paris-Meudon and Grenoble Observatories (France), was just what we needed to take this decisive step forward".

The NACO observations of the Milky Way centre

The new NACO instrument [3] was installed in late 2001 at the VLT 8.2-m YEPUN telescope. Already during the initial tests, it produced many impressive images, some of which have been the subject of earlier ESO press releases [6].

"The first observations this year with NACO gave us right away the sharpest and `deepest` images of the Milky Way Centre ever taken, showing a large number of stars in that area in great detail", says Andreas Eckart of the University of Cologne, another member of the international team that is headed by Rainer Schoedel, Thomas Ott and Reinhard Genzel from MPE. "But we were still to be overwhelmed by the wonderful outcome of those data!"

Combining their infrared images with high-resolution radio data, the team was able to determine - during a ten-year period - very accurate positions of about one thousand stars in the central area with respect to the compact radio source SgrA*, see PR Photo 23c/02.

"When we included the latest NACO data in our analysis in May 2002, we could not believe our eyes. The star S2, which is the one currently closest to SgrA*, had just performed a rapid swing-by near the radio source. We suddenly realised that we were actually witnessing the motion of a star in orbit around the central black hole, taking it incredibly close to that mysterious object", says a very happy Thomas Ott, who is now working in the MPE team on his PhD thesis.

In orbit around the central black hole

No event like this one has ever been recorded. These unique data show unambiguously that S2 is moving along an elliptical orbit with SgrA* at one focus, i.e. S2 orbits SgrA* like the Earth orbits the Sun, cf. the right panel of PR Photo 23c/02.

The superb data also allow a precise determination of the orbital parameters (shape, size, etc.). It turns out that S2 reached its closest distance to SgrA* in the spring of 2002, at which moment it was only 17 light-hours [5] away from the radio source, or just 3 times the Sun-Pluto distance. It was then moving at more than 5000 km/s, or nearly two hundred times the speed of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. The orbital period is 15.2 years. The orbit is rather elongated - the eccentricity is 0.87 - indicating that S2 is about 10 light-days away from the central mass at the most distant orbital point [7].

"We are now able to demonstrate with certainty that SgrA* is indeed the location of the central dark mass we knew existed. Even more important, our new data have "shrunk" by a factor of several thousand the volume within which those several million solar masses are contained", says Rainer Schoedel, PhD student at MPE and also first author of the resulting paper.

In fact, model calculations now indicate that the best estimate of the mass of the Black Hole at the centre of the Milky Way is 2.6 +- 0.2 million times the mass of the Sun.

No other possibilities

According to the detailed analysis presented in the Nature article, other previously possible configurations, such as very compact clusters of neutron stars, stellar size black holes or low mass stars, or even a ball of putative heavy neutrinos, can now be definitively excluded.

The only still viable non-black hole configuration is a hypothetical star of heavy elementary particles called bosons, which would look very similar to a black hole. "However", says Reinhard Genzel, "even if such a boson star is in principle possible, it would rapidly collapse into a supermassive black hole anyhow, so I think we have pretty much clinched the case!"

Next observations

"Most astrophysicists would accept that the new data provide compelling evidence that a supermassive black hole exists in the center of the Milky Way. This makes even more likely the supermassive black hole interpretation for the enormous concentration of dark mass detected at the center of many other galaxies", says Alvio Renzini, VLT Programme Scientist at ESO.

So what remains to be done? The next big quest now is to understand when and how these supermassive black holes formed and why almost every massive galaxy appears to contain one. The formation of central black holes and that of their host galaxies themselves increasingly appear to be just one problem and the same. Indeed, one of the outstanding challenges for the VLT to solve in the next few years.

There is also little doubt that coming interferometric observations with instruments at the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) will also result in another giant leap within this exciting field of research.

Andreas Eckart is optimistic: "Perhaps it will even be possible with X-ray and radio observations in the next few years to directly demonstrate the existence of the event horizon."

More information

The information presented in this Press Release is based on a research article ("Seeing a Star Orbit around the Supermassive Black Hole at the centre of the Milky Way" by Rainer Schoedel et al.) that appears in the research journal "Nature" on October 10, 2002.

Richard West | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Studying fundamental particles in materials
17.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie

nachricht Seeing the quantum future... literally
16.01.2017 | University of Sydney

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

Im Focus: How to inflate a hardened concrete shell with a weight of 80 t

At TU Wien, an alternative for resource intensive formwork for the construction of concrete domes was developed. It is now used in a test dome for the Austrian Federal Railways Infrastructure (ÖBB Infrastruktur).

Concrete shells are efficient structures, but not very resource efficient. The formwork for the construction of concrete domes alone requires a high amount of...

Im Focus: Bacterial Pac Man molecule snaps at sugar

Many pathogens use certain sugar compounds from their host to help conceal themselves against the immune system. Scientists at the University of Bonn have now, in cooperation with researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom, analyzed the dynamics of a bacterial molecule that is involved in this process. They demonstrate that the protein grabs onto the sugar molecule with a Pac Man-like chewing motion and holds it until it can be used. Their results could help design therapeutics that could make the protein poorer at grabbing and holding and hence compromise the pathogen in the host. The study has now been published in “Biophysical Journal”.

The cells of the mouth, nose and intestinal mucosa produce large quantities of a chemical called sialic acid. Many bacteria possess a special transport system...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

Nothing will happen without batteries making it happen!

05.01.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Water - as the underlying driver of the Earth’s carbon cycle

17.01.2017 | Earth Sciences

Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

17.01.2017 | Materials Sciences

Smart homes will “LISTEN” to your voice

17.01.2017 | Architecture and Construction

More VideoLinks >>>