But it took UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez to find strong evidence of a supermassive black hole there.
The mystery was previously unsolvable. Although the behavior of stars at the galaxy's core hints at the possibility of a nearby black hole, the image of those stars is distorted by our atmosphere. But by using a special technique she helped to develop that significantly improved resolution, Ghez could accurately observe the behavior of the stars. "It's like putting on glasses," she says.
Ghez — who was just 33 when she made the discovery in 1998 and already was a rising star in the field of astronomy — became interested in star science as a child when she watched the first lunar landing on TV and announced that she planned to be the first woman astronaut on the moon. Her parents didn't laugh; they bought her a telescope. She went on to earn her B.S. from MIT in 1987 and her Ph.D. from Caltech in 1992. Attracted by the opportunity to have access to the Keck I Telescope - the world's largest telescope, which UCLA co-owns - atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, she came to UCLA and promptly began to make important discoveries related to star formation and how galaxies evolve. For her work, she's received the 1998 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy, given for outstanding achievement to an astronomer under 36, the 1999 Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award from the American Physical Society for outstanding achievement by a woman scientist, and numerous other accolades and recognition.
"She continues to dazzle and amaze the astronomical community with her technical virtuosity and scientific accomplishments," says Ferdinand Coroniti, Ghez's department chair. Ghez is now searching for additional black holes or other dark matter near the massive black hole.