On April 10, 2019, thirteen years after the first data collection made by the
Event Horizon Telescope, the first-ever image of a black hole was released by it. It’s the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy. For the first time in human history, we can directly observe what a black hole looks like. Well, we can’t exactly observe it because it emits no light, or lets any light escape its event horizon. What we can observe is the surrounding area of the black hole.
The telescope is not one telescope
The Event Horizon Telescope is not one telescope. It’s a global network of radio telescopes spread all around the world. It started more than a decade ago in 2006. This network was used to create a virtual telescope with an effective diameter of the entire planet through a technique called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). The goal of the telescope was to observe the immediate environment of supermassive black holes, for example, Sagittarius A (the black hole at the centre of our galaxy).
Explaining what we see
The black spot that we see at the centre of the bright halo, is the black hole itself. It is not a matter or an object. Think of it like a sink that absorbs everything, even visible light. This region is black because of a singularity.
The region where the fabric of time and space has collapsed on itself.
The bright ring of light outside the black hole are actually matter and light constantly being absorbed into the black hole and burning into smithereens, at temperatures of billions of degrees!
A massive amount of Data!
The data captured using this global network of telescopes reached ridiculous numbers. The volume of data that was analyzed was around 5 petabytes. To put things into perspective, one petabyte is equal to one thousand terabytes. If we consider a movie to take up around five gigabytes of space, we can fit around one thousand movies into that space. If we consider each to take around two hours, it would take you nearly three months straight finish them all. It’s such a large volume that they had to load it all up into one thousand pounds of hard drives and use airplanes to get the data from one place to another.
Katie Bouman and the indomitable spirit
Safe to say, it’s a gigantic amount of data. This data had to be analyzed and made sense of. But shifting through all this data is not easy. It cannot be done manually. This is where Katie Bouman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology comes in. She led the development of the algorithm that turned all this data into the iconic image that is circulating every corner of the internet now.
Following the release of the image of the black hole, her name shot through the media too. Now she is making headlines as the mind that made it all possible. Though Katie Bouman is very keen to point out that this would not have been possible without inputs of all the brilliant scientists working together for more than a decade.
The image that defines a scientific era
The discovery of this image has set the internet ablaze, and for good reasons. The fact that we can even see the image is a testament to the sheer advancement that we as a species have made in technology over the years. The centre of the Messier 87 galaxy is around fifty-three million light years away from our Earth.
Still, we have created devices that can capture images from this tremendous distance with enough clarity to analyze and gain knowledge from. We can now finally find out if our predictions and theories match up with reality. So far, the image seems to confirm what we already theorized. This only goes to show that humanity can achieve things that defy imagination.