An image from NASA’s Spitzer Telescope has put the first-ever direct black hole picture, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope and made public early in April, into spatial context.
The Spitzer Telescope was launched in 2003 and continues to operate today, a decade after it ran out of fuel.
It has been instrumental in several major discoveries – such as the seven planets orbiting the Trappist-1 star. Its latest data haul only adds to its impressive record.
New images, released by NASA, capture the entirety of the elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87), which entered humanity’s consciousness earlier this month when investigators using the Event Horizon released the first pictures of the supermassive black hole at its heart.
The release marked a huge milestone. Previously, astronomers had detected many signatures, or proxies, indicating the existence of black holes, including gravitational waves and particle jets, but a clear image of the event horizon surrounding any such hole had proved impossible.
Now, the images produced by Spitzer add to the story, showing all of M87, some 55 million light-years from Earth.
It is not the first time the galaxy has been photographed, but the new images do so in unprecedented detail. In particular, they show clearly two massive jets of particles shooting from the disc of material spinning rapidly around the black hole.
One of the jets – on the left-hand side of the photograph – is angled to Spitzer’s equipment in such a way that a definite downwards bend can be seen.
This, say researchers, is evidence of the point at which the fast-moving particles are colliding with other matter within the galaxy, and slowing down.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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