STFC team enables astronomers to produce the first ever image of a black hole
11 Apr 2019



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.


​​​​​First image of a black hole.

Credit: EHT Collaboration

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.

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.

One of the sites STFC contributed to was the ESO Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) project in Chile. RAL Space hosted the European Front-End Integration Centre, which assembled and tested 26 of the highly complex ALMA front-end detection systems and also supplied over 1,000 advanced photonic mixer devices that ensure coherent operation of the array. 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.

Former ALMA UK Project Manager, Professor Brian Ellison, said “The UK contribution to the ALMA array construction has been instrumental in its formation as a world-class observation tool. It is a testament to the skill and knowhow of expert UK technical teams, in addition to that of our international partners, that ALMA has been able to support this important scientific advancement."

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.

STFC's UK ATC team also provided essential software observing preparation and data processing tools for ALMA that the scientists rely on to make observations and turn the raw data into a useable form.

Technical experts at RAL Space have been collaborating with a number of the other observatories that form the EHT and will shortly deploy a new receiver system at the Large Millimetre Telescope (LMT), Mexico.

Read more about the breakthrough.

The last ALMA front end that was supplied to the ALMA project. From right to left: Jane Porter – RAL Space, Matthew Oldfield RAL Space, Nigel Morris – RAL Space, Brian Ellison – RAL Space, Peter Huggard – RAL Space, Eric Clark – RAL Space (retired), Colin Dabinett – Technology Dept, Peter Hekman - ESO and Jenny Davenne – RAL Space. Credit: STFC.