UMass Amherst Astronomers, Part of International Team, Win 2020 Breakthrough Prize for Black Hole Discoveries

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AMHERST, Mass. – The international team of astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) mission – including eight from the University of Massachusetts Amherst – who earlier this year unveiled the first direct image of a supermassive black hole and its shadow, were awarded the 2020 Breakthrough Prize this month by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, among others.

The foundation’s citation recognizing the EHT mission’s accomplishments states, “Using eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world in Antarctica, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona and Spain, a global collaboration of scientists at 60 institutions operating in 20 countries and regions captured an image of a black hole for the first time. By synchronizing each telescope using a network of atomic clocks, the team created a virtual telescope as large as the Earth, with a resolving power never before achieved from the surface of our planet.�

UMass Amherst’s professor Gopal Narayanan, who is principal investigator of the UMass Amherst’s EHT mission, professor Peter Schloerb, who is principal investigator of the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in the global EHT array, astronomy researcher Neal Erickson, astronomy graduate students Aleks Popstefanija and Sandra Bustamante, and engineers Vern Fath, Ron Grosslein and Kamal Souccar are members of the UMass team.

The LMT in Mexico is operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica,
Óptica y Electrónica. Because of its central geographical location and large aperture, the LMT has been critical to the success of the EHT array, Narayanan says. He adds that at times the EHT “looked like an impossible task,� but that global collaboration and team spirit prevailed.

Narayanan says, “It is an incredible honor for the UMass team to join the rest of the EHT community in sharing this prestigious Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics. All the hard work that our team put in on various facets of this experiment has borne fruit. I cannot be prouder of our UMass and our LMT team members who share in this prize.�

With its prizes known as the “Oscars of Science,� the foundation is now in its eighth year of recognizing major achievements in fundamental physics, mathematics and the life sciences. Each Breakthrough Prize, among the world’s most generous science awards, is $3 million. It will be shared equally by the 347 EHT researchers from around the world who co-authored six papers published in April reporting the detection of the black hole in the center of a galaxy in the Virgo cluster known as M87, 55 million light-years from Earth.

The Breakthrough laureates are to be honored at a live televised ceremony on the National Geographic channel on Sunday, Nov. 3 in Mountain View, California. Each year the program has a theme, and this year’s topic, “Seeing the Invisible,� was inspired by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration.

In addition to Zuckerberg and Chan, Breakthrough Prize Foundation founding sponsors include Sergey Brin,
Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.