By now you have probably heard about the astounding observations of the black hole at the center of the galaxy designated M87 and christened Powehi, a Hawaiian phrase referring to an “embellished dark source of unending creation.” This monster of an object, six billion times as massive as our sun, seen in a galaxy more than 55 million light years from Earth, represents our best evidence yet that Einstein was on to something with his general theory of relativity.
That smudgy doughnut around a symmetric sea of emptiness has us peering directly at the edge of an event horizon, a region of space so dense not even light can escape. And while this doesn’t look like much, for perspective, it would be easier for you to see the width of someone’s eyelash in New York City if you were standing in downtown Los Angeles.
Even so, this black hole is enormous, large enough to swallow our entire solar system.
One other cool fact: this black hole is so massive, you could pass right into it without experiencing the intense forces of a smaller black hole that would tend to rip you apart. It would still be a one-way trip, but worth the experience.
The observations confirm some of the strange physics that theorists predicted about the bent space around a black hole. The swirling ring of gas and dust around it, known as an accretion disk, casts light that gets trapped in orbit around the event horizon. Because of the extreme curvature of space and time, the images show light from the top, bottom, front and back of the disk. All at the same time.
As weird as that sounds, the observation confirms that massive black holes look a lot like those computer-generated shots from the movie “Interstellar.” This is good corroboration of the modeling work done by the scientists consulted to make those renderings.
And perhaps the only thing more awesome is the effort undertaken to make the observation.
To see something so tiny, so far away, requires an enormous telescope. The effort linked observatories in the contiguous United States with ones in Hawaii, Mexico, Europe, South America and Antarctica. Using a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), massive computers sync the millimeter wavelength signals observed from each individual instrument, effectively creating a telescope as large as the entire Earth.
But linking all of these instruments required more than just technology. It required a sea of experts from the fields of astronomy, physics, electrical and mechanical engineering, computing expertise in hardware and image processing, among others. It required the cooperation and funding of numerous government and private agencies, along with the collaboration of hundreds of scientists and, in the end, likely thousands of engineers and support staff. All of these folks needed to be fed and cared for, on site and off, during the long days and nights processing more than a petabyte of data retrieved to make the handful of images.
To put that in perspective, if you took a selfie every second of your waking life you’d collect a petabyte of images. Maybe.
While it’s difficult to estimate how much these images cost, given the sheer number of private and public entities, both national and international, involved in the research, over 250 scientists and countless numbers of support personnel contributed to the six-year effort. That’s got to be in the hundreds of millions at least. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, all that money eventually gets spent on mortgages and car payments, not to mention Starbucks and loads of carryout. I can’t think of a better way to stimulate the economy.
Still, that’s a lot of effort, personnel and money to take a few snapshots of a region of space that, in the end, we can’t really even see.
So what’s the payoff of such experiments? We astronomers are beside ourselves at having direct proof of something Einstein predicted over 100 years ago. Computer scientists and image analysts got to develop cutting edge algorithms on an extremely difficult problem, pushing technologies that will spill over into everything from medical imaging to application development.
But the real payoff of such experiments is a demonstration that a diverse group of humans across multiple nationalities and disciplines can achieve something truly incredible through cooperation, dedication and simple hard work.
While I am in awe of the observations, and perhaps even more astounded by the technology necessary to complete them, I am most excited by the collaboration that brought them to fruition.
This might be the most important achievement of all.