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.
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 RAL and UK 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. 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 for ALMA that the scientists rely on to turn the raw data into a useable form.
In addition to this work 26 of the 70 ALMA sensitive receiver system units, which detect very faint signals from space, were assembled and tested at the European Front End Integration Centre previously located at STFC's RAL site. RAL Space also supplied approximately 1,000 photo-reference mixers that ensured coherent operation of the receivers. During the array construction phase at ALMA RAL Space provided key areas of technology including the photonic phase reference mixers, and calibration load development.
30 years ago, RAL Technology also built the JCMT in Hawaii, another of the telescopes used to develop this image. UK ATC delivered key instruments for this telescope used for this observation.
You can read more about the breakthrough here