First picture of a black hole developed by MIT Ph.D student

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  The first photographic image of a black hole, developed by Katie Bouman.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first photographic image of a black hole, developed by Katie Bouman.

BY NADIA BABAR ’19

For years, black holes have only ever been visible via artistic interpretations and the imaginations of science fiction authors. But on April 10, jaws dropped as the world saw the first ever image of a black hole. MIT PhD student Katie Bouman is credited with developing the algorithm that allowed the data from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) to be pieced together and interpreted, according to Science News. The image was first captured in 2017 by the EHT, a network of eight linked telescopes stationed around the world. Two years later, after lengthy analytical measures and image processing, the image of a dark, circular shadow surrounded by a glowing ring of fire was released to the scientific community and, shortly thereafter, the public.

Described by scientists as a “monster,” the black hole in the image is approximately 3 million times the size of Earth and is located in the distant galaxy of Messier 87 in the constellation Virgo. A black hole is a region of space with such a strong gravitational pull that nothing, not even light, can escape from it, and is usually formed by the ‘death’ of a massive star, when all of the star’s mass is rapidly pulled inwards towards a single point. Once formed, a black hole absorbs all light that hits it, reflecting nothing. This particular black hole has proven to be a giant among its peers, with Professor Heino Falcke of Radboud University in the Netherlands describing it as “the heavyweight champion of black holes in the Universe.” The black hole has since been named “Powehi,” which means “embellished dark source of unending creation,” according to Larry Kimura, a professor at the University of Hawaii and the person responsible for the moniker.

Black holes are notoriously difficult to see due to their fundamental properties as huge cosmic abysses of nothing. Since a black hole essentially swallows”everything that approaches it, its location can, at best, be inferred by observing the behavior of light and matter around it. That’s what the EHT did back in April of 2017, when the image of Powehi was first captured. But it took multiple observatories from all over the world to cooperate in order to produce the image of the black hole now circulating around the internet. The information gathered by the EHT couldn’t be sent around via the internet due to the sheer amount of data that was gathered. Instead, hard drives had to be flown to processing centers in the United States and Germany to be evaluated.

The development of this picture has massive implications for the future of astronomical research. Scientists believe that this picture will help us understand how black holes grew and developed when the universe was in its early stages. Scientists also hope to use the information gathered from Powehi to help generate an image of Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.