For more than 15 years UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez poured her heart -- and every research moment she could find -- into exploring the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
When she began, no one was certain that such a thing existed -- a concept hard to fathom when its mass is four million times greater than the sun.
Ghez’s work, along with fellow recipient and German astronomer Reinhard Genzel’s, is the best evidence to date that supermassive black holes exist, and indicates that they most likely can be found at the heart of all galaxies.
On Thursday, her extraordinary research was recognized with a Crafoord Prize in Astronomy from the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists-- a prize nearly as prestigious as the Nobel among astronomers.
She is the first woman to receive the honor.
"Black holes are impossible to observe directly — everything in their vicinity vanishes into them, virtually nothing is let out," the Academy noted in a statement announcing the prize. "The only way of exploring black holes is to investigate the effects their gravitation has on the surroundings."
In fact, “by studying this supermassive black hole, we’re not only learning about black holes, but also about the structure of galaxies, which are the basic building blocks of the entire universe,” said Ghez, who was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2008 for her research.
While Ghez’s research focused on a specific black hole, Griffith Observatory Director Dr. Ed Krupp confirms that the implications are, quite literally, universal.
“It tells us something about the universe as a whole, and how it works,” Krupp said. “Ultimately, other astronomers use this information to do other research.”
Ghez first took on the project in 1995 as an assistant professor at UCLA, when the world was still blind to the existence of the supermassive black hole spinning at the center of our galaxy, which had been a source of debate among astronomers for decades.
“Supermassive black holes are objects that force us to contend with the fundamental breakdown of the universe,” Ghez said, explaining the controversy that surrounded the existence of the black hole, called Sagittarius A.
At the time Ghez began her research, the technology to provide concrete evidence of the black hole didn’t exist.
But with the help of advances in adaptive optics—technology that makes telescope images clearer by reducing distortion caused by the atmosphere—the telescopes Ghez used at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii could function as if they were in outer space.
In 2005, she and her colleagues took the first clear picture of the Milky Way’s center, including the area surrounding the black hole.
“I have no doubt that our adaptive optics capabilities are stronger and more tailored to address astrophysical questions by virtue of Andrea’s involvement and that of her team,” Keck Observatory director Taft Armandroff said in a press release.
With this sharp view outer space, Ghez was able to track the motion of stars around the black hole and in turn determine the black hole’s mass and volume.
“[Ghez] told us something we suspected but did not know,” Krupp said. “Knowing it’s there, not by guesswork, but by clever, innovative and demanding observation, is invaluable. [She] was essentially viewing the invisible.”
With the answer to one of the astronomy’s biggest questions under her belt, Ghez has new mysteries surrounding the supermassive black hole to solve, including why many young stars, which are fragile and susceptible to being ripped apart by a black hole, can exist so close to Sagittarius A.
“While we’ve answered the question we set out to answer, we’ve also discovered things we didn’t predict,” Ghez said. “There is a lot to learn about how galaxies and supermassive black holes form over time.”
Ghez, who was born in New York City and raised in Chicago, is thrilled to be the first woman to win the award.
“There have been so many women breaking barriers in science,” Ghez said. “I’m the beneficiary of those who allowed women to use telescopes in the same way men do.”
Of the four Crafoord Prize winners this year, two hail from UCLA; also honored was Australian-American mathematics professor Terence Tao.