First Black Hole Image–Seeing the Unseen

In one of the biggest space breakthroughs that humanity has ever witnessed, astronomers captured a gargantuan black hole for the first time. Images were released on Wednesday, 10th April, thereby ushering in a revolution of our understanding of the enormous and mysterious objects of the universe. The picture depicts a stream of flame, orange dust and gas, spiraling around a humongous dark-cored black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, which is about 55 million light years from the Earth and resembles the ‘Gargantua’ black hole depicted in the famous movie Interstellar.

Black holes are such incredibly inconceivable dense regions of space-time that even light cannot escape from their pull. The process of their formation mainly starts when massive stars start extinguishing, and then end up collapsing. The region of space-time around them gets so unimaginably bent that it is impossible for anything to escape their gravity. Although this is the first time a black hole has been captured and viewed, a large amount of data had already been gathered by the scientists as an evidence to support their existence. Not only have the humans been able to know their locations, but also their sizes, masses, nature and behaviour in terms of their effects on the surrounding objects. It has been three years since the scientists reported the discovery of gravitational waves in February 2016, a prediction of the General Theory of Relativity.

This successfully added to the database of the information on black holes. They were the first ever gravitational waves to be detected and produced by the merging of the two black holes into one. They detected about 1.3 billion years ago. Even light cannot escape their pull. Also, black holes neither emit nor reflect any other form of electromagnetic radiation. Thus, they cannot be observed by any of the scientific instruments.

The almost impossible task of photographing a black hole having a mass of 4.1 million suns and a diameter of 60 million kilometers was achieved by the Event Horizon Telescope. The task is akin to photographing a lemon on the moon from the Earth. Therefore, the team involved in the project needed a telescope which had to be as big as the Earth itself. Since building such a humongous machine was practically not feasible, an elaborate network of massive telescopes was built around the world. Around three years ago, when the project was in its initial stages, the MIT described it as, “the project sought to turn the entire planet into a large radio telescopic dish.” Their data was combined and the first ever visual depiction of the black hole was pieced together.

The Event Horizon Telescope comprises of eight radio telescopes situated in Hawaii and Mexico, in the mountains of Arizona, in Spanish Sierra Nevada, in the Atacama Desert of Chile and near the South Pole in Antarctica. Extremely accurate atomic clocks were used to accomplish the challenge of acquiring an accurate image. A small part of the area of the hole was captured by each telescope. It was then physically delivered to a supercomputer, which removed the time differences in about 5000 terabytes of data, and created a complete picture over several months.

Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old post-doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led the team that was responsible for the creation of the algorithm that made possible the first ever image of the black hole. She developed the algorithm while she was still a graduate student at MIT. Katy named the algorithm as CHIRP (Continuous High Resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors). Bouman worked with a majority of men during the course of the project. Although this doesn’t make Katie any more deserving of all the appreciation she’s receiving, considering the abysmally low levels of women in the higher education, particularly in the STEM fields, Katie definitely serves as an inspiration and a potential role model for young girls all across the globe. It is hoped that all young women who aspire to achieve success eventually get what they want, without any barriers.

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