Last April the world stopped to see the first "real" image of a supermassive black hole, or rather its shadow. It was the revelation of an investigation that stayed years in the "secret of the gods," or indeed the secret of a few mortals who worked on it. Among the more than two hundred scientists involved in the project Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) was Hugo Messias.
The 35-year-old Portuguese astrophysicist went to Chile in September 2016 to join a doctoral program at one of the largest and most important astronomical observatories in the world, the ALMA – Atacama Large Millimeter Array. When he arrived, he was given a choice between several ongoing projects at the observatory and Hugo Messias chose the EHT, which he had "heard of".
After a short learning period, the first observations began in January 2017, and the following April the official observations centered on the supermassive black hole of galaxy M87 towards the constellation Virgo, with a mass of over 6 billion. times that of the Sun and located 55 million light-years from Earth. The first results would only be released two years later…
Hugo Messias explained in an interview with SAPO TEK, after participating in the Encounter with the Scientist initiative, organized by Escola Ciência Viva every week, that his team's mission was to “get it” in ALMA to make it work with a single antenna.
Simply put, what ALMA's 66 high-precision antennas do is "hear" signals. "Our eyes and the telescopes we are used to receive light and record the 'corpuscular' amount of light, ALMA notes its wave properties." Comparison with sound is easier for the younger ones to understand, said the Portuguese researcher, who had used the analogy to explain how the astronomical observatory works in the fourth-grade class session of Escola Ciência Vida.
Concerning the EHT project, the team had to “make sure the system worked, prepare the observations and execute them.” Later it was also necessary to calibrate the data and make sure it was of sufficient quality to be sent to Bonn and Boston later, to be correlated with the data recorded in the other observation stations involved in the EHT.
After all the signals gathered, a mathematical model transformed the "ripples" emitted by the matter consumed by the black hole in the photograph revealed on April 10, 2019.
"I was sitting in the chair, I saw the picture, I leaned back and said, 'Wow, we did it!'"
Some time before, Hugo Messias had access to the draft of the scientific article that had been invited to integrate. At first it was the "enthusiastic kid" part with the result. "Of course I went to look for where the image was." The enchanted look of a child eventually gave way to a scientist's curiosity. "It was so similar to the simulations that I was doing, I leaned back in my chair and started the whys and read the rest of the article."
Return scheduled to "hear" black holes again, without discarding the space trip
Hugo Messias officially ended his doctoral program at ALMA last August, although after that he was back in Chile to discuss post-2017 observations about the M87 black hole, which will give rise to new images – which may be from the same ring. supermassive light or not …
EHT also looks at another black hole, Sagittarius A *, located in the center of the Milky Way. Although much closer than the M87's "monster" – as it is "only" 26,000 light-years away from Earth, instead of 55 million – Sagittarius A * is smaller and also faster, making it difficult your remark.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese astrophysicist will return to ALMA in January 2020 to continue participating in EHT projects, although he has signed a two-year contract with the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences and the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon. Hugo Messias considers that in Portugal there are scientists with very high quality and there is work, but there are very few guarantees to offer. "I had a two-year contract now and after that what would happen?"
"The science done in Portugal is very good, but the investment made in it is very poor"
Going to ALMA “offers stability,” he shared, but it is also an excellent career opportunity. “ALMA is the largest observatory in the world and my ambition right now is to make the most of making the EHT megaproject as successful as possible.” While in Chile, Hugo Messias will also continue to work on his own science. "I work with different things, for example, how does a galaxy grow so big in such a short time."