What exactly is the origin of the orange ring around M$87$?

I understand that the image was not taken in the visible light range. The colors are therefore artificial.

I also read that the image shows the shadow of the black hole on a brighter region of space which is "glowing" gas. Still I wonder about the following:

  1. Why is the bright region circularly shaped and centered around the black hole?
  2. Is the bright region at the same distance as the black hole or much further away?
  • $\begingroup$ this is the accretion disc $\endgroup$ – Gendergaga Apr 14 '19 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Yukterez No it really isn't. $\endgroup$ – ProfRob Apr 14 '19 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ Are we talking about the thin ring from the computer simulation in Figure 12 in the official paper at iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/ab1141 ? Then you're right, this is the photon sphere but that is not visible on the blurry photo, only in the simulation. On the photo there is not enough detail to distinguish between the accretion disk, since the resolution is too bad and all colors are orange as well. $\endgroup$ – Gendergaga Apr 14 '19 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ I am asking about the image that is all over the news (the blurry image!?) $\endgroup$ – user1583209 Apr 14 '19 at 11:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Yukterez Further, the simulation you are talking about is actually a model fit (i.e. it shows the intrinsic model before blurring with the instrumental resolution). The photon ring is the prominent feature here. The disk is much fainter and would be a near-to-invisible blu once the instrumental resolution has been applied. $\endgroup$ – ProfRob Apr 15 '19 at 9:58

The bright region is known as a "photon ring". It is light that is heading towards us from a radius of around $1.5 r_s$ around the black hole, where $r_s = 2GM/c^2$ is the Schwarzschild radius of the black hole. So yes, the light is certainly coming to us from the immediate environs of the black hole and so from the same distance.

The light travelling towards us is warped by the distortion of space-time caused by the black hole. The warping acts like a magnifying glass meaning we see the photon ring as larger - with a radius of $2.6r_s$.

The reason that we see a ring at all is because the plasma surrounding the black hole is "geometrically thick, but optically thin" at the 1.3 mm wavelengths used in the observations.This means that mm-waves are generated by fast-moving electrons in the plasma that is being accreted onto the black hole and the plasma exists over the whole of the region imaged (and beyond), but that most of the emitted light will escape self-absorption.

The latter property is key. When viewing such a plasma, the brightness depends on the density of the plasma and the path length of the sightline we have into it.

This matters greatly near a black hole, because the densest plasma will be nearest the black hole but any light that is emitted and heads inside the location of the "photon sphere" at $1.5 r_s$ will end up in the black hole, possibly after orbiting many times, and is lost. Light emitted outwards from dense plasma inside or at the photon sphere may orbit many times and then escape from the edge of the photon sphere. Light emitted just outside the photon sphere can be bent towards us on trajectories that graze the photon sphere.

The result is a concentration of light rays that appear to emerge from the photon sphere and which we view as a circular ring. The ring is intrinsically narrow but is made fuzzy in the Event Horizon Telescope images by the limited (but amazing) instrumental resolution.

Inside the ring is relative darkness. There is some light coming towards us from this direction - from plasma between us and the black hole, but it is much fainter than the concentrated light from the photon ring. Much of the light that would have come to us from that direction has fallen into the black hole and hence it is referred to as the "black hole shadow".

The ring and the shadow should (according to General Relativity) be perfectly circular for a non-spinning, spherically symmetric black hole. The spherical symmetry is broken for a spinning Kerr black hole and small ($\leq 10$%) departures from circularity might be expected (e.g. see section 9 of paper VI in the Event Horizon Telescope series on M87). The spin of the black hole drags material around it and is thought to be responsible for the asymmetric brightness distribution of the ring, through Doppler boosting in the direction of forward motion.

The observed ring is not the accretion disk

The apparent radius of something residing in a Schwarzschild metric, when viewed from infinity is given by $$ R_{\rm obs} = R \left(1 - \frac{R_s}{R}\right)^{-1/2}\ ,$$ where $R_s$ is the Schwarzschild radius $2GM/c^2$.

This enlargement is due to gravitational lensing and the formula is correct down to the "photon sphere" at $R =1.5 R_s$.

Most of the light in the EHT image comes from the photon sphere. It is therefore observed to come from a radius $$ R_{\rm obs} =\frac{3R_s}{2}\left(1 - \frac{2}{3}\right)^{-1/2} = \frac{\sqrt{27}}{2}R_s\ .$$ This is almost precisely what is observed if the black hole has the mass inferred from independent observations of the motions of star near the centre of M87.

By contrast, the accretion disk would be truncated at the innermost stable circular orbit, which is at $3R_s$ and would appear to be at $3.7R_s$ as viewed from the Earth (or larger for co-rotating material around a spinning black hole), significantly bigger than the ring that is observed. So we might expect disk emission to come from further out.

Nevertheless, there is inflow from the disk and General Relativistic simulations involving magnetic fields do show some emissivity in a broader disc-like structure around the black hole.

A set of simulations were done as part of the analysis of the EHT image and are described in paper V of the EHT M87 series. Fig.1 of this paper shows an intrinsic image (i.e. prior to blurring with the instrumental resolution) that provides a reasonable fit to what is seen (see below). In all cases the emission is dominated by the photon ring and the direct contribution of the accretion disk/flow is much lower.

A direct quote from that paper:

The central hole surrounded by a bright ring arises because of strong gravitational lensing (e.g., Hilbert 1917; von Laue 1921; Bardeen 1973; Luminet 1979). The so-called "photon ring" corresponds to lines of sight that pass close to (unstable) photon orbits (see Teo 2003), linger near the photon orbit, and therefore have a long path length through the emitting plasma.

From paper V of the EHT data release papers The Figure above is from paper V of the EHT data release on M87. It shows the observations (left) a General Relativistic simulation (center) and the same simulation blurred by the instumental resolution of the Event Horizon Telescope (right). The dominant feature is the photon ring. A weak disk contribution (or rather inflow from the disk) is seen in the simulation, but contributes little to the observed ring seen in the observations.


The bright orange ring around M87 in the recently published image by the Event Horizon Telescope is the "photon ring" which surrounds the dark shadow. The shadow has a radius of about 2.5 times that of the event horizon. The photon ring results from light rays that orbit around the black hole in the near-field region before escaping to infinity, where they arrive near a ring-shaped critical curve on the image plane. The shadow represents the interior of the critical curve.

The photon ring is a region of enhanced brightness near the critical curve that arises if optically thin matter emits from the region where unstable bound photon orbits exist. The light rays that comprise the photon ring can orbit many times through the emission region and thereby pick up extra brightness. Since the optical path lengths become arbitrarily long near the critical curve, the brightness can become arbitrarily large (neglecting absorption).


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