You’ve seen the very first photo of a black hole, now meet the person who helped to pull it together.
MIT grad student Katie Bouman was behind the algorithm which helped to image the black hole, residing in the middle of galaxy M87, some 55 million light years away.
A photo of Bouman in disbelief, which was originally posted on her Facebook page, was shared on the MIT CSAIL Twitter account. The caption suggests it was taken at the very moment the image was processed.
Back in 2016, Bouman developed the algorithm which was used to create the groundbreaking image, working with a team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the MIT Haystack Observatory.
The sheer distance of the black hole from Earth meant it would be akin to photographing an orange on the Moon’s surface. To get an image of the black hole, you’d need a large telescope. An Earth-sized one, in fact.
“To image something this small means that we would need a telescope with a 10,000-kilometer diameter, which is not practical, because the diameter of the Earth is not even 13,000 kilometers,” Bouman explained at the time.
So, to achieve this, a global network of eight ground-based telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope project banded together to create one large telescope, designed to collect light data from the black hole.
Bouman comprehensively described the process in a 2017 TED Talk.
As the project’s website explains, the light data can tell researchers about the structure of the black hole, but there is still missing data which stops them from creating a complete image.
Bouman’s algorithm — CHIRP (or Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors) — uses the sparse data collected from telescopes to help choose and verify an image to help fill in the gaps.
“Even though we had predicted that if you had a black hole that would see this ring of light, we didn’t know if we were going to get this ring of light,” she told Nature.
“We could’ve just gotten a blob. Seeing that ring, and seeing a ring that has a size that is consistent with other measurements that had been done completely differently, I think seeing that ring of light and being able to see that ring exists is huge.”
So, what’s actually going on in the photo itself? We broke it down.