Frank Eisenhauer becomes new director at the MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics

The astrophysicist Frank Eisenhauer builds sophisticated instruments for the world’s largest telescopes and uses them to explore black holes and distant galaxies with unprecedented precision.

May 31, 2023

On June 1, Frank Eisenhauer will become scientific member of the Max Planck Society and director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE). For many years, Frank Eisenhauer has been developing sophisticated experiments at MPE together with Nobel Prize laureate Reinhard Genzel, with a particular focus on looking ever closer at the center of our Milky Way. In the past few years, the group made several breakthroughs with the GRAVITY instrument, which is currently being operated at the VLT: Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been tested and confirmed multiple times near the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way; hot gas was observed orbiting this black hole at 30% of the speed of light very close to the point of no return; the scientists obtained a detailed view of the gravitational vortex of giant black holes in distant galaxies; and for the first time, exoplanets were observed using interferometry with previously unattained sensitivity to study their atmospheres.

The very high resolution needed for such observations is only possible by using the technique of interferometry, i.e. the GRAVITY experiment led by Eisenhauer combines the four 8m telescopes of the European Southern Observatory to form a virtual telescope 130 meters in diameter. This technique has been used with radio telescope for decades; at infrared wavelengths, however, the technical challenges are huge, and it was up to GRAVITY to achieve the crucial breakthrough. GRAVITY is currently being upgraded with a new system of adaptive optics, laser guide stars and an extended field of view. This project, called GRAVITY+, will soon take interferometry to the next level, opening up the extragalactic sky for observations at the highest resolution, as well as providing ever sharper images for exoplanet observations.

Frank Eisenhauer studied physics at the Technical University of Munich. Already in his diploma and doctoral theses, which he worked on at MPE, the Technical University and the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, he developed instruments to obtain the best possible images with astronomical telescopes. Very soon, the galactic center became the focus of his research. He led the two major international experiments, SINFONI and GRAVITY, to first detect and then characterize the black hole at the heart of our Milky Way with increasing precision. Frank Eisenhauer teaches astrophysics and high-resolution astronomy as an adjunct professor at the Technical University of Munich.

Eisenhauer has received numerous awards for his research and instrument development. In 2022, he was honoured for the “unprecedented and exquisite” precision of his instruments with the prestigious Gruber Cosmology Award. The same year, he received not only the Stern-Gerlach Medal, the highest award of the German Physical Society for outstanding achievements in the field of experimental physics for his pioneering work in high-resolution infrared astronomy, but also the Jackson Gwilt Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for his development of astronomical instrumentation. Earlier, he had already been awarded the Tycho Brahe Medal 2021 of the European Astronomical Society for his development of the SINFONI and GRAVITY instruments as well as the Michelson Investigator Achievement Award 2020, given by Lowell Observatory and the Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur (OCA), for pioneering results with VLTI-GRAVITY. Eisenhauer is also a foreign member of the French Académie des Sciences.

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