Wednesday was a historic day for many scientists and astronomers since they managed to take a picture of a black hole. This is a big win since so much research has been done on this matter for a long time. A puzzle that seemed to be impossible has finally been cracked and so many scientists, among them Professor Heino Falcke and Dr. Katie Bouman, have been acknowledged for making this project a success. Read on to know how this was done.
The history of black holes dates back to 1916, when Albert Einstein, a celebrated Scientist, predicted their existence. He came up with calculations that would, later on, be proved more than one hundred years later. The first black hole was discovered in 1971. Since then, there have been efforts towards coming up with an image of these mysterious space objects. It has been a long journey that required a lot of commitment in terms of research. Now, it has finally paid off.
Who is Katie Bouman - the woman behind the first black hole picture ever?
Katherine Louise Bouman is 29 years old woman whose algorithm helped the team she's been working in to get the famous photo. Although, Katie Bouman didn't do it alone, she contribited really much to achieve the goal - to get the photo of black hole. To gain a deeper understanding of how it worked out, you should watch this 2 years old TED talk with Katie below, where she explains how to take a picture of a black hole.
What is a black hole?
According to extensive research by astronomers, a black hole is a region in space that has a very high gravitational force, and therefore, nothing can escape, not even light. Judging from the term, ‘hole,' it contains a large amount of matter that is densely stuffed within a small area, hence the high gravitational pull. Beyond the black hole is the event horizon. The event horizon is commonly referred to as a point of no return. In this region, it is not possible to get away from the effect of the gravitational pull of the black hole.
When were black holes first discovered?
The theory of black holes dates back to 1916 when Albert Einstein speculated their existence in his theory of Relativity. He did not mention so much about them though, apart from a few calculations. His theory was further devised, and John Wheeler, an American astronomer, affirmed the idea of black holes in 1971. This attracted the attention of several astronomers towards conducting further research on the same to gain more information. The findings of the latter were; there existed three types, depending on their sizes.
Types of black holes
The primordial black holes are the smallest ones. According to research, these black holes are as small as an atom, although their mass is as big as that of a large mountain.
The second type is the stellar black holes. Stellar black holes have a mass that can extend up to twenty times that of the sun. Their diameter can extend up to ten miles. Stellar black holes have a likelihood of existing in the Milky Way galaxy.
The third and largest type of black holes are the supermassive black holes. Their mass is more than one million times that of the sun. Their diameter is equal to, or more than that of the solar system. According to research, scientists presume that these supermassive black holes exist at the center of every large galaxy. There is a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and it is called Sagittarius A. Sagittarius A has a mass that is four million times that of the sun. The diameter of Sagittarius A is almost the same as that of the sun. Can you imagine?
How can black holes be detected?
Logically, black holes cannot be detected in the open. This is because they have a powerful gravitational pull that tends to direct all the light rays into the black hole. Therefore, it is impossible for the light to be reflected to our eyes; thus, we cannot see them. However, scientists have devised a method of detecting their presence. This is through observing the behavior of stars. Usually, if stars orbit at a particular point, by observing the motion of the stars, it is possible to deduce the presence of a black hole. To gain more knowledge on the properties of the black hole, astronomers study the X-ray light that is released from an accretion disk. An accretion disk is formed when a black hole with a very high gravitational pull tends to draw the outer gases from a star and create a disk around the star. The disk revolves and releases X-ray light.
How was the of the black hole image captured?
Ever since the idea of black holes came into existence, so much effort has been put forward towards gathering as much information as possible. Spacecraft, satellites, and space telescopes have been launched with a bid to collect information about these mysterious space objects. The most successful project being the Event Horizon Telescope. Event Horizon Telescope is a series of eight telescopes that have been networked across the world. This series of Telescopes managed to capture the image of the black hole. The properties were further deduced and published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
According to the journal, the black hole has a diameter of four hundred billion kilometers. Scientists described it as a ‘monster,' because, it is three million times the size of the earth. It is five hundred million trillion kilometers away from Earth.
According to Professor Heino Falcke of Radboud University, who is one of the masterminds in the experiment, the black hole was spotted on galaxy M87. He said that it was greater than the solar system. In his speech, he said, "It has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. And it is one of the heaviest black holes that we think exists. It is an absolute monster, the heavyweight champion of black holes in the Universe."
He described the image to have had a ‘ring of fire’ surrounding a circular hole. He further added that the image coincided with Einstein’s theoretical calculations and that Einstein’s idea was right.
Among the people that have received accolades for their contribution towards this great discovery is Katie Bouman. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate and computer scientist has been acknowledged for developing an algorithm that ended up creating an image of the black hole. Dr. Bouman started working on this algorithm about three years ago.
The long journey that started more than a century ago has finally bore fruits. It has taken lots of investments and research by scientists to come up with an image of a black hole. What was more than imagination to many has finally become a reality thanks to Prof Heino Falcke and his team, and DR. Katie Bouman, the twenty-nine-year-old computer scientist.