Black hole telescope team shares $3 million Breakthrough Prize

The first direct image of a black hole at the center of the galaxy M87. The bright doughnut-like ring is formed by light bending around the black hole due to its enormous gravity. Image: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

The 347 members of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, credited with capturing the first image of a supermassive black hole’s “shadow” at the heart of a giant elliptical galaxy, will share the $3 million 2020 Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics. Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics will accept the award on behalf of the collaboration at a 3 November ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

“Using eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world in Antarctica, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona and Spain, a global collaboration of scientists at 60 institutions operating in 20 countries and regions captured an image of a black hole for the first time,” the Breakthrough Prize said in a statement.

“By synchronizing each telescope using a network of atomic clocks, the team created a virtual telescope as large as the Earth, with a resolving power never before achieved from the surface of our planet. One of their first targets was the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy — its mass equivalent to 6.5 billion Suns.

“After painstakingly analyzing the data with novel algorithms and techniques, the team produced an image of this galactic monster, silhouetted against hot gas swirling around the black hole, that matched expectations from Einstein’s theory of gravity: a bright ring marking the point where light orbits the black hole, surrounding a dark region where light cannot escape the black hole’s gravitational pull.”

Overall, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation is awarding $21.6 million in its eighth annual awards ceremony “in recognition of important achievements in the life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics.” Each prize is valued at $3 million.