The First Ever Image of a Black Hole
Scientists have managed to capture the first-ever image of a black hole. The world of science made a historical breakthrough. What seemed impossible, isn’t anymore.
Last Wednesday a press conference was held to reveal the picture successfully taken. The first ever picture of what was mere science fiction and popular imagination just a few years ago. Now the elusive black hole has a face.
“We have taken the first picture of a black hole. This is an extraordinary scientific feat. Only accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.” said EHT project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian.
The image captured reveals the supermassive black hole and its shadow. It’s at the center of Messier 87 a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth. And it has a mass 6.5-billion times that of the Sun. HUUUGE!
This image is the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole.
But How Was The Black Hole Image Captured?
Did you know, all representations of black holes in literature before this were illustrations?
A direct image was never possible before because most black holes were either too small or too far away. The nearest thing to an image that scientists had was the traces of black holes. Which, could only be seen in x-ray.
So, a regular telescope could ever capture this image. This black hole image was only possible with a massive and powerful telescope. Here’s where the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) came to be.
On April 4th of 2017, an array of eight radio telescopes located on mountains around the globe were set up. Combined, they made up an Earth-sized virtual telescope – the EHT.
The EHT is the only telescope ever equipped with enough sensitivity and resolution to capture the image of black holes. See, black holes are extremely compact objects despite their enormous masses. And, are located far away (billions of lightyears distance).
The 8-telescope-array was forged through years of international collaboration. It took a team of over 200 researchers and years of research. This collaboration was named the ‘Event Horizon Telescope Project‘.
The Science Behind The EHT and Black Hole Image
It took extremely precise coordination. Besides that, for a clear, sharp image to be captured, clear weather was necessary in all those places. And, Earth had to be oriented in such a way that all 8 telescopes had a view of the black hole simultaneously. All of which really could only be done once a year.
Capturing the image didn’t just stop there. After the coordination, data from the 8 telescopes was gathered. There was so much data (petabytes worth), that it had to be transported by airplanes. The half tonne of hard drives of data was transported to a center to be combined using highly specialized supercomputers.
Then, a team of specialists worked in unison to interpret the data. Basically, they had to piece together all the timestamped data from distant telescopes. Why? To boost the data signal and quiet the noise/ disturbance.
It didn’t stop there. Then, for months on, these specialists continued work. Slowly generating an image which best represented the data interpreted. The result of all that work is the image we have now.
This whole process is called ‘very long baseline interferometry (VLBI)’. A mouthful!
The Masterminds Behind The Image of The Black Hole
This breakthrough was led by the National Science Foundation. But, not one particular person could take credit for this historical feat. It was a global effort. Making the EHT a success was the fruit of labor of a 200 member team. Which comprised of international researchers from all around the globe.
But, if any notable contributors were to be named, one would be Katie Bouman. She created one of the algorithms that led to the groundbreaking black hole image. And, also helped develop the imaging and verification process.
Despite her huge contribution, she maintains humility. “No one of us could’ve done it alone. It came together because of lots of different people from many backgrounds.” Champions for girl power rejoice!
Did you know, some of our very own intellectuals helped too? Astronomers from Universiti Malaya (UM) contributed. VLBI expert, Dr. Juan Carlos Algaba said so. Who’s also a member of the Department of Physics Radio Cosmology Laboratory in Astronomy there. The head of the lab said this contribution is a turning point. It will definitely begin a boost for the role of Malaysians in Astronomy.
Why is This Phenomenon So Momentous?
This black hole image confirms Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What was predicted, is now proven in real life. Scientists will be able to study black holes more extensively. And hopefully, get a better understanding of them.
Besides that, it gives scientists a newly found confidence. Confidence about their estimations and predictions for black holes.
The proven success of the EHT in capturing this image opens so many other doors too. It offers scientists a new way to study other extreme cosmic objects. All which were predicted by Einstein’s theory many years ago.
A Promising Future For The World of Science
Did you know all this was merely an idea among scientists some 20 years ago? This proves that years of collaboration and work guarantee results. The success of the EHT and the possibilities it presents so much promise. Especially advancements for Physics in space.
What an exciting time to be alive! Hopefully, great discoveries can continue to be made. And we get to progress further in Science.