Path to Razor-Sharp Black Hole Images Discovered – Striking and Intricate Substructure

The image of a black hole has a bright ring of emission surrounding a “shadow” cast by the black hole. This ring is composed of a stack of increasingly sharp subrings that correspond to the number of orbits that photons took around the black hole before reaching the observer.
Credit: George Wong (UIUC) and Michael Johnson (CfA)

Last April, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) sparked international excitement when it unveiled the first image of a black hole. Today, a team of researchers have published new calculations that predict a striking and intricate substructure within black hole images from extreme gravitational light bending.

“The image of a black hole actually contains a nested series of rings,” explains Michael Johnson of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian (CfA). “Each successive ring has about the same diameter but becomes increasingly sharper because its light orbited the black hole more times before reaching the observer. With the current EHT image, we’ve caught just a glimpse of the full complexity that should emerge in the image of any black hole.”

Because black holes trap any photons that cross their event horizon, they cast a shadow on their bright surrounding emission from hot infalling gas. A “photon ring” encircles this shadow, produced from light that is concentrated by the strong gravity near the black hole. This photon ring carries the fingerprint of the black hole—its size and shape encode the mass and rotation or “spin” of the black hole. With the EHT images, black hole researchers have a new tool to study these extraordinary objects.

Black holes cast a shadow on the image of bright surrounding material because their strong gravitational field can bend and trap light. The shadow is bounded by a bright ring of light, corresponding to photons that pass near the black hole before escaping. The ring is actually a stack of increasingly sharp subrings, and the n-th subring corresponds to photons that orbited the black hole n/2 times before reaching the observer. This animation shows how a black hole image is formed from these subrings and the trajectories of photons that create the image.
Credit: Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

“This is an extremely exciting time to be thinking about the physics of black holes,” says Daniel Kapec, Member in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study. “Einstein’s theory of general relativity makes a number of striking predictions for the types of observations that are finally coming within reach, and I think we can look forward to lots of advances in the coming years. As a theorist, I find the rapid convergence between theory and experiment especially rewarding, and I hope we can continue to isolate and observe more universal predictions of general relativity as these experiments become more sensitive.”

The research team included observational astronomers, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists.

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