Scientists have recently released the first-ever photograph of a supermassive black hole, known as M87, located at the center of a neighboring galaxy. Right smack in the middle of this project is one woman, Katie Bouman, a former graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who made it possible for the world to get its first real glimpse of a black hole.
Three years ago, Katie led the development of an algorithm that would soon help capture the black hole and its shadow. She was then a computer science and artificial intelligence graduate student of MIT. Along with a number of others, Katie’s algorithm paved the way for scientists to piece together various images sent to the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) that captured the image that we have today. The EHT is a network of eight linked telescopes across the globe by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics led by Professor Sheperd Doeleman.
The telescopes were manned and observed by a team of 200 scientists, including graduate and post-graduate students responsible for the imaging portion. These are located in various sites including volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and Spanish Sierra Nevada, in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and in Antarctica. The research is published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
A Well-Kept Secret
In June 2018, the data from the eight telescopes located all over the world finally arrived at the center, and for one breathless moment, the team couldn’t take their eyes off their computer monitors. “We all watched as the images appeared on our computers,” Katie tells Time.com. “The ring came so easily. It was unbelievable,” she says.
The black hole is situated at 55 million light-years from Earth, is 6.5 billion times heavier than the Sun, and is three million the size of the Earth itself.
Professor Heino Falcke of Radboud University in the Netherlands described the black hole as an “absolute monster, the heavyweight champion of black holes in the Universe.” Professor Falcke is the one who proposed the experiment.
The image shows an intensely bright “ring of fire,” as the professor describes it, surrounding a perfectly circular dark hole. The halo is from the superheated gas being sucked into the hole. The light is brighter than all the billions of stars in the galaxy combined.
With this image, Albert Einstein’s prediction about black holes is proven to be true. His Theory of Relativity suggests that when a star dies, if it is 20 times greater than the mass of the sun, it creates a black hole. Scientists have hypothesized the existence of black holes for centuries.
When the image was released to the entire world on April 10, 2019, Katie can finally say, “It’s been really hard to keep our lips sealed. I hadn’t even told my family about the picture.”