Imaging The Black Hole

We developed ways to generate synthetic data and used different algorithms and tested blindly to see if we can recover an image. We didn’t want to just develop one algorithm. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them. If all of them recover the same general structure, then that builds your confidence.

The first image of a Black Hole

Katie Bouman was a junior member on the imaging sub-team involved in the project, according to CNN. Over the course of her research, she was a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), then a postdoctoral fellow with the Event Horizon Telescope. The latter is an organisation that aims to “directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole,” per its site.In the fall, she’ll be an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology.

According to CNN, Bouman wrote an imaging algorithm in 2016 (back when she was a PhD candidate) which would eventually lead to the image the world got to see today. Her algorithm, along with several others, helped scientists piece together a ton of data received through telescopes into the photo of the black hole.

During a TED talk in 2016, Bouman explained what her team was trying to do. She noted that the black hole they were aiming to take a picture of was so far (over 26,000 light years away) that you would need a telescope the size of the Earth in order to see it. “However, as you can imagine, building a single-dish telescope the size of the Earth is impossible,” Bouman said. “…[But] by connecting telescopes from around the world, an international collaboration called the Event Horizon Telescope is creating a computational telescope the size of the Earth, capable of resolving structure on the scale of a black hole’s event horizon.”

She continued, “Each telescope in the worldwide network works together. Linked through the precise timing of atomic clocks, teams of researchers at each of the sites freeze light by collecting thousands of terabytes of data. This data is then processed in a lab right here in Massachusetts.” In other words, instead of trying to capture the black hole once, the organisation worked to capture it from thousands of different angles, putting all of those pieces of data towards creating that one image.

MIT’s Katie Bouman with the huge stack of hard drives used for Messier 87’s black hole image data