They Took a Picture of a Black Hole

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

And you should care

Isabella Curiel-Ploumis

On April 4th, 2017, eight telescopes on mountaintops across the world were synced up and began collecting radio waves from the galaxy known as Messier 87 (or M87), which is 54 million light-years away. These telescopes make up different parts of the Event Horizon Telescope, a major project to capture the first photograph of a black hole. This multi-telescope method is known as very long baseline interferometry. It correlates all the data to make it more clear and with less noise.

It has been impossible to see black holes with the naked eye because no light escapes them. It is difficult to capture them with other wavelengths because they are very small, very far away, or both. For example, Sagittarius A* (said as Sagittarius A-Star), a black hole we do not yet have a photo of, has the mass of 4 million Suns but fits inside the orbit of Mercury.

Many different things had to go right to get this photo. No data could be lost on the way, and the weather had to be clear at each telescope location, all while they were each facing the black hole at the same time. There was so much data involved it was stored on 960 hard drives, which had to be flown on airplanes to be physically connected. They had to wait six months to get the data from the South Pole due to the station being closed for the winter.

Humanity’s first image of a black hole isn’t sharp like the drawings, but it’s better. This image exists because we caught scraps of light with aluminum dishes and combined them on a supercomputer. This image is real.

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