On Wednesday, researchers presented the world’s first photo of a black hole. The image comes from inside the very active galaxy Messier 87, M87 for short, which is 55 million light-years from Earth. This black hole has 6.5 billion times the mass of our Sun. The image will go down in history with no doubt.
It is a historical image that astronomers are presenting: a worldwide network of radio telescopes has for the first time photographed the shadow of a black hole. In addition to the participating researchers of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas also invited the photo to be presented in Brussels. At the same time, press conferences were held worldwide. In Washington, the National Science Foundation (NSF) informed the public, and other events took place in Chile, China, Taiwan and Japan.
The effort is an indication of how fundamentally important the researchers hold the published results. They are considered comparable to scientific breakthroughs such as the discovery of the Higgs boson (2012) and the first detection of gravitational waves (2016). In both cases, the researches were later awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery.
The first picture of a black hole is truly a sensation. Over 200 scientists worked for years to present the footage to the public one day. But it is largely thanks to Katie Bouman that the project has succeeded. She has developed the crucial algorithm that helped with the reconstruction of the images.
Three years ago, she led the team that just designed this algorithm for the project. At this time, Bouman was a Ph.D. student for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“She was a significant part of one of our imaging teams,” said Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory. Bouman emphasizes that no one would have accomplished this sensation alone. “It worked because many different people worked together with many backgrounds.”
At the center of many, maybe even all, galaxies there is a black hole. It is an extreme place where so much mass concentrates in a confined space that even light can not escape the gravitational effect. Although the sight of science fiction films may seem familiar, no one has actually seen such a gravity monster. All previous pictures were always illustrations, scientifically sometimes more and sometimes less correct.
But the now presented picture of the Event Horizon Telescope is real. It has become possible because, after years of preparatory work, researchers have connected numerous radio telescopes worldwide in such a way that they function as a single, gigantic observation instrument. This is how a virtual telescope was created. Its resolution corresponds to that of a single antenna with a diameter of 8000 kilometers. As a result, the comparatively small area of a black hole can be depicted in sufficient detail.
The scientists involved give the following account to illustrate the efficiency of the collection of telescopes: If a person’s eyes were as sharp as the EHT, then this person could theoretically read a newspaper across the Atlantic. However, the telescopes observe no visible light, but radio radiation with wavelengths of just over one millimeter. The captured rays are shown in red in the image, so that the human eye can perceive them.
Among the eight facilities used include the “Alma” telescope in Chile with 66 huge radio dishes, telescopes of the European Southern Observatory, also in Chile, the IRAM 30 -meter telescope at Granada in the Spanish Sierra Nevada and a telescope at the South Pole. All of them had previously been equipped, among other things, with high-precision atomic clocks so that their observations could be synchronized.
For a more in depth look on how Katie Bouman led the charge to create the first-ever image of a black hole, watch her TED talk right here.