Scientists Call Black Hole Image Tip of the Iceberg

Scientists revealed the first image ever made of a black hole after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the world. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Capturing an image of a black hole was considered impossible just a generation ago but an international collaboration produced that very impossibility last month. On Thursday, scientists told Congress they are ready to go even deeper into the reaches of the universe’s greatest cosmic mysteries. 

The Event Horizon Telescope, a massive planet-size array of telescopes connected over a global network, combined electromagnetic wave data and advanced imaging techniques to produce the world’s first-ever look at a black hole.

Despite it being 53.5 million light years away, the telescope array – an endeavor some 20 years in the making – captured awe-inspiring images of Messier 87, a supergiant black hole that holds a mass greater than our own sun by 6.5 billion times.

“The look on the face of my colleagues when the first images appeared on computers will never leave me: it was astonishment, wonder, pride, awe and humility,” Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope program, told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday.

Two hundred scientists and researchers and 60 institutions spread over 20 countries joined together to complete the feat of engineering and astrophysics. But this giant leap is only the first of many that will be made now that Messier 87 has had its first – relatively speaking – close-up.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Doeleman said. “Imagine when Galileo was looking through the first telescope. It wasn’t the end of astronomy but the beginning. We’re using the most intense cosmic laboratory to understand the universe. Normally, you’d have to build a super collider to probe the unknown. Now, we’re using the edge of a black hole that nature itself presents us.”

The next step, Doeleman explained, was to increase the number of telescopes and radio satellites to expand observation capability and eventually shoot live-action video of the black hole.

Scientists want to see how matter moves inside of these “ferocious engines” of the universe, Doeleman said.

He said black holes can pierce entire galaxies and disrupt star formations, and they sit at the center of everything that makes the night sky look the way it does.

The National Science Foundation has largely funded all research for the Event Horizon program. On Thursday, House Democrats released a spending bill that would pump an additional $561 million into the foundation, a direct rebuke to President Donald Trump’s plan to cut its budget by roughly $1 billion for fiscal year 2020.

Committee Chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, asked the experts plainly: why does it matter that the United States invests in a program with no guarantee of results or success?

“Investing in something speculative and high-risk pays off,” Colin Lonsdale, director of the MIT Haystack Observatory, said Thursday.

Some 4.5 billion people saw Messier 87 when the image was published. The imagery is inspiring, Lonsdale said, especially for young people who see it and may want to emulate the work, thereby “feeding” the STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – pipeline.

But investing in Event Horizon isn’t just about inspiring new generations, it’s about having a chance to answer the deepest fundamental questions about our universe.

“If you asked Einstein what the ramifications of the theory of relativity would be, he’d have no answer,” Doeleman said. “If you told him it would help GPS on every cellphone on Earth today, he would ask: what is a cellphone? When you ask these basic questions, they almost always pay off.”

Many thought the first image of black hole would be that of the massive Sagittarius A, situated in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. But that “ferocious engine” is next on the list.

The difficulty there, however, is that Sagittarius A changes its point of view as the earth rotates while Messier 87 stays static for 87 days at a time.

Sagittarius A evolves in front of scientists eyes. Double the telescopes would provide quadruple the information and by putting satellite dishes into low Earth orbit, more data could be sampled faster.

Katherine Bouman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and the Smithsonian Institute, contributed algorithmic data to the Event Horizon program.

Looking at Sagittarius A, in its constantly evolving state, she said, could be the reason why doctors may one day be able to better treat expecting mothers on Earth.

“Organs move, and when it comes to MRIs, taking images of a baby in a mother’s womb, for example, can be difficult. The baby is moving, so you need a model of motion. Techniques used to observe a black hole can be used to diagnosis health problems with mothers and babies,” Bouman said.

Over the next year, Event Horizon has plans to launch at least two additional telescopes for the 2020 observation campaign.

Producing moving images of the black hole, the panel agreed, would be profound: if a black hole can be better mapped – especially through video – its mass and spin will tell scientists how all space and time around it is affected.

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