Distant black hole mass measurement demonstrates the potential of GRAVITY+

29 January 2024

Astronomers have, for the first time, made a direct measurement of the mass of a distant black hole, one so far away that light from its surroundings took 11 billion years to reach us. The team, led by Taro Shimizu at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, found the black hole, called J0920, to have a mass of about 320 million times that of the Sun. This achievement, described in a paper published today in Nature, has been made possible thanks to GRAVITY+, a series of ongoing upgrades to ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) and its GRAVITY instrument.

To directly measure the mass of a black hole, astronomers use telescopes to track the movement of gas and stars around it. The faster these move, the more mass is encased within the material’s orbit. This technique has been used to measure the mass of nearby black holes, including the one at the centre of the Milky Way. At very remote distances, however, this motion is extremely hard to observe. This means similar direct measurements of the mass of distant black holes, which provide a window into a period in the history of the Universe when galaxies and black holes were rapidly growing, have not been possible until now.

The direct measurement of J0920’s mass was only possible with the first set of GRAVITY+ improvements. These upgrades have allowed astronomers to observe the faint, distant gas around the black hole with greater accuracy than ever before by using a technique called wide-field, off-axis fringe tracking. Measuring the mass of J0920 accurately is a first step to help astronomers understand how black holes and galaxies grew together at a time when the Universe was only a couple of billion years old and galaxies were still forming. For J0920, the new mass measurement reveals the black hole is about four times less massive than expected given the mass of its host galaxy; this indicates a delay in the growth of the black hole compared to the surrounding galaxy.

GRAVITY+ uses interferometry to combine the light arriving at the four 8-metre Unit Telescopes (UTs) that are part of VLTI. Once completed, it will include upgraded adaptive optics technology that will enable better correction of the blur caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and improve the contrast of observations. GRAVITY+ will also implement one new laser guide star on each of UT1-3, and will make use of one of the lasers currently installed on UT4, to observe fainter and more distant objects than currently possible.

The upgrades to GRAVITY+ are being implemented incrementally, to ensure that there are limited disruptions to the scientific operations of the VLTI. This also allows for astronomers to continually test the performance of GRAVITY+ as it comes online. The full set of upgrades is anticipated to be completed in 2025. The new features will benefit all present and future VLTI instruments and the scientists who use them.

More Information

This research was presented in a paper to appear in Nature titled “A dynamical measurement of the supermassive black hole mass in a quasar 11 billion years ago”.

The team is composed of R. Abuter (European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany [ESO]), F. Allouche (Université Côte d’Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, CNRS, Laboratoire Lagrange, France [Lagrange]), A. Amorim (Universidade de Lisboa - Faculdade de Ciências, Portugal and Centro de Astrofísica e Gravitação, IST, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal [CENTRA]), C. Bailet (Lagrange), A. Berdeu (Observatoire de Paris, Université PSL, CNRS, Sorbonne Université, Université de Paris, France [LESIA]), J. P. Berger (Univ. Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, France [UGA]), P. Berio (Lagrange), A. Bigioli (Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium [KU Leuven]), O. Boebion (Lagrange), M.-L. Bolzer (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany [MPE], Department of Physics, Technical University Munich, Germany [TUM] and Univ. Lyon, ENS de Lyon, CNRS, Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, France [CRAL]), H. Bonnet (ESO), G. Bourdarot (MPE), P. Bourget (European Southern Observatory, Chile [ESO Chile]), W. Brandner (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany [MPIA]), Y. Cao (MPE), R. Conzelman (ESO), M. Comin (ESO), Y. Clénet (LESIA), B. Courtney-Barrer (ESO Chile and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, College of Science, Australian National University, Australia [ANU]), R. Davies (MPE), D. Defrère (KU Leuven), A. Delboulbé (UGA), F. Delplancke-Ströbele (ESO), R. Dembet (LESIA), J. Dexter (Department of Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences, JILA, University of Colorado, USA), P. T. de Zeeuw (Leiden University, The Netherlands), A. Drescher (MPE), A. Eckart (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Germany [MPIfR] and 1st Institute of Physics, University of Cologne, Germany [Cologne]), C. Édouard (LESIA), F. Eisenhauer (MPE), M. Fabricius (MPE), H. Feuchtgruber (MPE), G. Finger (MPE), N. M. Förster Schreiber (MPE), P. Garcia (Faculdade de Engenharia, Universidade do Porto, Portugal [FEUP] and CENTRA), R. Garcia Lopez (School of Physics, University College Dublin, Ireland), F. Gao (MPIfR), E. Gendron (LESIA), R. Genzel (MPE and Departments of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, USA), J.P. Gil (ESO Chile), S. Gillessen (MPE), T. Gomes (CENTRA and FEUP), F. Gonté (ESO), C. Gouvret (Lagrange), P. Guajardo (ESO Chile), S. Guieu (IPAG), W. Hackenberg (ESO), N. Haddad (ESO Chile), M. Hartl (MPE), X. Haubois (ESO Chile), F. Haußmann (MPE), G. Heißel (LESIA and Advanced Concepts Team, European Space Agency, TEC-SF, ESTEC, The Netherlands), T. Henning (MPIA), S. Hippler (MPIA), S.F. Hönig (School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Southampton, UK [Southampton]), M. Horrobin (Cologne), N. Hubin (ESO), E. Jacqmart (Lagrange), L. Jocou (IPAG), A. Kaufer (ESO Chile), P. Kervella (LESIA), J. Kolb (ESO), H. Korhonen (ESO Chile), S. Lacour (ESO and LESIA), S. Lagarde (Lagrange), O. Lai (Lagrange), V. Lapeyrère (LESIA), R. Laugier (KU Leuven), J.-B. Le Bouquin (IPAG), J. Leftley (Lagrange), P. Léna (LESIA), S. Lewis (ESO), D. Liu (MPE), B. Lopez (Lagrange), D. Lutz (MPE), Y. Magnard (IPAG), F. Mang (MPE and TUM), A. Marcotto (Lagrange), D. Maurel (IPAG), A. Mérand (ESO), F. Millour (Lagrange), N. More (MPE), H. Netzer (School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel Aviv University, Israel [TAU]), H. Nowacki (IPAG), M. Nowak (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK), S. Oberti (ESO), T. Ott (MPE), L. Pallanca (ESO Chile), T. Paumard (LESIA), K. Perraut (IPAG), G. Perrin (LESIA), R. Petrov (Lagrange), O. Pfuhl (ESO), N. Pourré (IPAG), S. Rabien (MPE), C. Rau (MPE), M. Riquelme (ESO), S. Robbe-Dubois (Lagrange), S. Rochat (IPAG), M. Salman (KU Leuven), J. Sanchez-Bermudez (Instituto de Astronomía, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico and MPIA), D.J.D. Santos (MPE), S. Scheithauer (MPIA), M. Schöller (ESO), J. Schubert (MPE), N. Schuhler (ESO Chile), J. Shangguan (MPE), P. Shchekaturov (ESO), T.T. Shimizu (MPE), A. Sevin (LESIA), F. Soulez (CRAL), A. Spang (Lagrange), E. Stadler (IPAG), A. Sternberg (TAU and Center for Computational Astrophysics, Flatiron Institute, USA), C. Straubmeier (Cologne), E. Sturm (MPE), C. Sykes (Southampton), L.J. Tacconi (MPE), K.R.W. Tristram (ESO Chile), F. Vincent (LESIA), S. von Fellenberg (MPIfR), S. Uysal (MPE), F. Widmann (MPE), E. Wieprecht (MPE), E. Wiezorrek (MPE), J. Woillez (ESO), and G. Zins (ESO).

The GRAVITY+ upgrades are designed and built by the following institutes together with ESO:

  • Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics; Max Planck Institute for Astronomy; the University of Cologne (Germany)
  • Institut National des Sciences de l'Univers, French National Center for Scientific Research; Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble; Laboratoire d’Etudes Spatiales et d’Instrumentation en Astrophysique; the Lagrange Laboratory; the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon (France)
  • Instituto Superior Técnico’s Centre for Astrophysics and Gravitation; University of Lisbon; University of Porto (Portugal)
  • University of Southampton (UK)
  • Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium)



Taro Shimizu
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics
Garching bei München, Germany

Antoine Mérand
VLTI Programme Scientist at ESO
Garching bei München, Germany

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Media Manager
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Cell: +49 151 241 664 00

About the Announcement



A starry night sky shows the prominent white and blue band of the Milky Way arcing towards the top left of the image. To its right in the sky is an artist’s impression of the material surrounding a black hole — an asymmetric ring of orange surrounds a bright white spot with a sharp green jet emanating from it. On the dark ground below are several dimly lit telescope domes.
Weighing black holes with GRAVITY+
A large grey object sits in a lab setting. On its surface are many pictures whose detail cannot be discerned, and one with the label GRAVITY. Three grey hoses come out from below it, beside many other dials and covers. To its left and right are large black objects, and behind it on the wall are many horizontal pipes.
GRAVITY instrument


Animation of the path of a light ray through GRAVITY
Animation of the path of a light ray through GRAVITY