• Brandminds 2020

The First-Ever Black Hole Image: Seeing The Unseeable

Curious of how the first-ever image of a black hole was acquired? 

Read on to find the challenge of photographing a black hole and the solution which made it possible.

Mankind has been looking at the stars since it acquired consciousness.

The Greeks, the Babylonians, Indians, Chinese, Maya and other early civilizations performed methodical observations of the night sky with passion, enthusiasm and wonder. Astronomy is one of the oldest of the natural sciences.

The Search for Knowledge Begins In The Mind

Man is our planet’s explorer. No other species is lead by curiosity and thirst for knowledge as mankind. As a species, mankind’s evolution has been driven by looking to explain the world’s natural phenomena. We want to know how the world around us works and why it works the way it does. We rely on observations, measurement systems and other practical methods.

But the search for knowledge begins in the mind, in the form of theories. Albert Einstein is our planet’s well-known theoretical physicist.

A genius by all definitions, Albert Einstein developed his theory of general relativity in 1915. His theory provides a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time or spacetime. Einstein’s theory has important astrophysical implications.

The theory of general relativity implies the existence of black holes; black holes – the term black hole was coined in the 1960s – are regions of space in which space and time are distorted in such a way that nothing, not even light, can escape; it’s how massive stars die.

Black Holes – The Challenge

Astrophysicist observed stars, planets, comets, meteors, galaxies and other natural phenomena taking place in outer space. But no one has ever seen a black hole. Due to their special nature and our technological limitations, black holes were categorised as unseeable.

What we cannot see, we imagine. So scientists turned to illustrations, computer-generated images and so on. The mysterious existence of black holes has sparked the imagination of film directors. There is a plethora of sci-fi movies and novels where a black hole is a silent character of epic proportions influencing mankind’s destiny.

We use our imagination to explain what we cannot see. But we are always looking for ways to confirm or disprove it. We want to learn the truth and we will go to great lengths to see it with our own eyes.

When we don’t have the appropriate tools to solve the problems at hand, we innovate.

When we realise we cannot do it on our own, we seek the help and support of our peers.

On April 10, 2019, the National Science Foundation in collaboration with the Event Horizon Telescope organized a press conference in which they revealed the first-ever photo of a black hole.

As Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope told the press conference attendees, it is the culmination of a two-year work involving an international team comprised of 200 scientists over 20 countries. It is a historic event which transforms and enhance our understanding of black holes.

Black Holes – The Solution

The whole process began in 2017 when the team at the Event Horizon Telescope collaborated with eight telescopes around the globe: Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile; SubMillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii; South Pole Telescope (SPT) in Antarctica; Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) in Arizona; Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) in Chile; Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Mexico; James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii; and Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique (IRAM 30m) in Spain.

Telescopes_black_hole_image
The 8 telescopes which worked together to get the first-ever image of a black hole/quantamagazine.org

This was a Herculean task, one that involved overcoming numerous technical difficulties. The Event Horizon Project shows the power of collaboration, convergence and shared resources allowing us to tackle the universe’s biggest mysteries.

France Cordova, Director, National Science Foundation

The purpose was to turn the Event Horizon Telescope into one giant telescope the size of the Earth. Combining the telescopes was the solution to acquiring the necessary image resolution to observe the black hole. For comparison, it was like looking to see an apple on the surface of the moon.

The Result – The First-Ever Image Of A Black Hole

brand_minds_2019_first-image-of-black-hole-min
image source: fortune.com

The scientists had ten days in April 2017 when the weather allowed all eight telescopes to take pictures of the same place in space at the same time. The coordinated effort of scientists was an extraordinary feat and it paid off.

We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We saw something so true. It was astonishment and wonder, it’s an extraordinary feeling.

Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope

It was a year later, in April 2018 that the huge amount of data collected by the telescopes would bring results. The data was so massive in size that it could not be transmitted over the internet; the scientists had to fly the data by jet.

After the data was received, four teams of scientists designed the algorithm which transformed the data into images.

What the scientists saw on their monitors was the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a large galaxy in the Virgo cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun.

I was a little stunned that it matched so closely the predictions that we have made. This is the beginning. It was a cathartic release of finding things are working but also the anticipation of all the amazing science that we are going to do by studying this image closely and by repeating the experiment.

Avery Broderick, Associate Faculty, Perimeter Institute and University of Waterloo

Dr Bogdan Adrian Pastrav, a researcher at the Space Science Institute (Bucharest-Magurele) studying the physics of galaxies and cosmic dust shared with me his thoughts on the potential impact of the first-ever image of a black hole and the world overall:

“This extraordinary event has multiple implications for researchers and not only.

First of all, it is a materialization of a mathematical concept, a solution to Einstein’s general relativity equations, to something observable, measurable. Before this, we could only infer indirectly the characteristics of a black hole, from the effects it had on its surroundings. Now, this amazing image helps researchers to extract meaningful information
about the mass and the spin of the black hole in a more direct way. This has implications on galaxy evolution models too.

It also helps researchers who perform simulations of black hole formation or black hole collisions to better understand these processes and improve their models. They can build more realistic simulations and movies for the general audience too.

From a non-researcher perspective, this can help people better comprehend what is a black hole, and not just from a theoretical point of view. Now they can actually visualise it.

For the humankind, it is another proof that when people unite for a common goal they can achieve new heights, which were almost impossible before.”

In 1915 Albert Einstein predicted black holes. A hundred years later an international team proved that Einstein was correct by taking the first-ever picture of a black hole.

It is an amazing achievement which shows that our world will only develop and grow through collaboration and innovation.

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