We’ve all seen the pictures on our feed of the blurry black mass embedded in a fiery ring among the stars – but what is it? The Eye of Sauron, or just the universe showing off? Here’s the scoop on the first official photo of a black hole…
Now you might be asking, “what is a black hole, anyway?”
The graphical term ‘black hole’ was first coined by American scientist John Weeler, and a black hole is exactly that; a big black hole in the universe. When a star reaches the end of its life, it explodes into the universe to then form new stars by the law of gravity. Some stars, however, have such a strong gravitational force, that instead of exploding, it collapses into itself creating an infinite funnel in time and space.
Think of it as if it’s the funnel created when draining water from a sink or bathtub; it sucks the water into itself in such a way that you see no bottom, only the rim at the top. Black holes are exactly that – an endless void with a bright fiery rim as you see in the image, the late Stephen Hawking coined this rim as the Event Horizon. For years scientists like Stephen Hawking theorised and could see the fingerprints of these mysterious voids in space and the matter orbiting (and ultimately sucked into) them but had no ‘mug shot’ to speak until 10 April 2019, when the first ever photograph was taken, and the universe gave us an exclusive sneak peek at the unknown – bringing theories to life.
This remarkable photo shows a halo of dust and gas 500 million trillion km from Earth, right at the center of the M87 galaxy. It’s known to be a supermassive black hole (the name says it all) located 55 million lightyears light years away from earth, with a mass of 6.5bn times that of the sun (a lot).
And by now you should be thinking, “that’s awesome, now I know that a black hole is, why is this one such a big deal?”
The Black Hole image was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – a network of eight linked telescopes from around the world, working individually to collect data that was going to be pieced together to ultimately form the image we saw. Before now such timing and technology were unobtainable, which makes this rather remarkable. The most noteworthy of all of this – was Dr. Katie Bouman’s algorithm that helped render all the tremendous amount of data (approx. 1000 disks and 5 petabytes of data) collected by all of the facilities around the world to form the complete image from fragments and multiple pictures. After the data was collected and arrived at the MIT Haystack Observatory and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, it took eight months to process.
It’s because of this 29-year-old computer scientist and her team’s hard work in developing the algorithm and intricate rendering software that we were able to see history made. She started working on the algorithm three years ago while she was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT has a long history of woman scientists that helped make history, including Margaret Hamilton who wrote the code that helped put a man on the moon.
Some interesting facts about our fire adorned void in space:
- Dan Marrone of The University of Arizona says in a few weeks of observing, Event Horizon Scope project collected approx. 1000 disks, 5 petabytes of data, that is equivalent to “all of the selfies that 40k people will take in their lifetime.” – Source NSF on twitter
- They were waiting for the data from the South Pole Telescope, which – due to extreme weather conditions during the southern hemisphere winter – didn’t arrive until six months later.
- CNRS astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet, author in 1979 of the first digital simulation of a black hole said that he never thought that he would see a real one in his lifetime.
- Locking down an image of M87’s supermassive black hole at such distance is comparable to photographing a pebble on the Moon.
- University of Pretoria astrophysicist, Professor Roger Deane, was part of the remarkable group of scientists who worked on the project.
Watch this video where Dr. Katie Bouman talks about the process of taking a photograph of the Black Hole.