UT-Austin supercomputer simulates the first-ever image of a black hole at the center of our galaxy

Researchers used UT’s supercomputer to generate simulated images of Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole that potentially sits at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, a discovery that provides stronger evidence for the existence of the black hole.

The study used the Frontera supercomputer to develop models of Sagittarius A* based on data collected from the Event Horizon Telescope. Charles Gammie, Willett Chair in Physics and professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said researchers have found compelling evidence to suggest there is a black hole at center of the Milky Way.

“What we see in the black hole images is not the black hole itself – we see the light emitted by the hot gas around the black hole,” Gammie said. “To really understand the source, you have to model this hot gas.”

Gammie and his team used measurements from telescopes to simulate images of what the black hole might look like. Lead researcher Chi-Kwan Chan said the use of Frontera was needed to simulate the movement of hot gases around the black hole.

“Using a desktop computer is not powerful enough to capture all the events of the plasma interaction that occur in the black hole,” said Chan, research associate professor of astronomy at the University of arizona. “In order to capture (these) complex physics, we need to use supercomputers.”

The study revealed that the black hole rotates in the opposite direction to the rotation of the Milky Way. Ben Prather, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said if researchers interpreted the Milky Way as being on an airplane, some might expect the black hole to be on the same plane. However, Prather said Sagittarius A* is tilted slightly to the plane of the galaxy.

Gammie said his team also used Frontera to calculate the strength of the black hole’s magnetic fields.

“It looks like at the galactic center the fields are just strong enough that they’re about to come out of the black hole,” Gammie said.

With new technologies like the Event Horizon telescope and UT’s Frontera supercomputer, Chan said scientists have raised new questions about black hole theory.

“We’re finally at a point where there are things we can’t explain,” Chan said. “Observation is now good enough to challenge theory, and that’s the only way to move physics forward.”

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