The M87* black hole that was famously photographed by astronomers last year appears to be wobbling, a new study claims.
As it rotates, ‘turbulence’ in the flow of matter being sucked in to the dark central void alters the brightest spot of its surrounding orange ring over time, giving the illusion that it’s wobbling or ‘glittering’.
M87* resides in the Messier 87 galaxy 54 million light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Virgo.
It was the subject of the first ever image of a black hole, published in 2019, depicted as a fiery ring of gas around a dark central region – the black hole itself.
The photo was obtained by a network of eight telescopes at high altitudes around the world, as part of a project called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).
Now, EHT researchers have analysed previously unpublished data from observations of M87* between 2009 and 2013.
The bright orange ring around the central black void has rotated significantly over the past 10 years of observation, they say.
While the ring is always present and the diameter of the ring remained constant over time, the brightest part is seen to change its orientation and brightness distribution.
‘In 2019, we saw the shadow of a black hole for the first time, but we only saw images observed during a one-week window, which is too short to see a lot of changes,’ said study author Maciek Wielgus at Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
‘Because the flow of matter falling onto a black hole is turbulent, we can see that the ring wobbles with time.
Black holes are unseeable in nature, as no light can escape from them due to their intense gravitational pull.
However, swirling ultra-hot material forms a ring around the perimeter that reveals the black hole itself.
‘What swirls around the black hole is hot ionized gas or plasma – a hot soup of protons and electrons – heated to billions of degrees, threaded by magnetic fields,’ Wielgus told MailOnline.
The boundary separating this ring of swirling gas from the black hole itself, from which not even light can escape, is called the event horizon.
Gas falling onto a black hole heats up to billions of degrees, ionizes and becomes turbulent in the presence of magnetic fields.
This ‘turbulence’ causes the appearance of the black hole to vary over time, the team say.
‘The data analysis suggests that the orientation and fine structure of the ring varies with time,’ said study author Thomas Krichbaum, astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.
The study gives a first impression on the dynamical structure of the accretion flow – the rate at which material is pulled within it – which affects its appearance.
‘The accretion flow contains matter than gets close enough to the black hole to allow us to observe the effects of strong gravity,’ Wielgus said.
The combined data also revealed that M87* adheres to theoretical predictions from general relativity.
The shape of the black hole’s shadow has remained consistent, and its diameter remains in agreement with Einstein’s theory of general relativity for a black hole of such an incredible mass.
M87* has a mass that’s 6.5 billion times that of our Sun.
‘In this study, we show that the general morphology, or presence of an asymmetric ring, most likely persists on timescales of several years,’ said Kazu Akiyama, a scientist at the MIT Haystack Observatory and a participant on the project.
‘This is an important confirmation of theoretical expectations as the consistency throughout multiple observational epochs gives us more confidence than ever about the nature of M87* and the origin of the shadow.’
The analysis has been published in The Astrophysical Journal.
Developing the technology to capture the image in the first place was a ‘Herculean task’, the researchers said last year, as no single telescope is powerful enough to image a black hole in such detail on its own.
So, EHT built a ‘virtual telescope’, allowing them to peer into Messier 87.
EHT consists of a network of eight telescopes at high altitudes around the world, in California, Hawaii, Mexico, Arizona, Sierra Nevada, the French Alps, the Chilean Atacama Desert and Antarctica.
Together they form an Earth-sized virtual telescope with an angular resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds – enough power to read a newspaper in New York from a Paris street.
The data required more than ‘half a ton of hard drives,’ said Dan Marrone, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.
The eight telescopes collected five petabytes of data – or the equivalent of 5,000 years of mp3s, or ‘a lifetime of selfies for 40,000 people’.
Each telescope produced around 350 terabytes of data per day, which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives and flown to supercomputers in Massachusetts and Bonn, Germany.
MIT graduate Dr Katie Bouman created an algorithm that collected the data from the telescopes to stitch together a photograph of the phenomenon.
Sharing her achievement on Facebook, Bouman wrote: ‘Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.’
The image was named 2019’s most exceptional scientific achievement by the journal Science last December.
The breakthrough in April 2019 was announced in a series of six papers published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.