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Area researchers celebrate the first image of a black hole

Katherine Bouman had devoted years to the astonishing quest – to help capture the first image of a massive black hole in a distant galaxy, a blank so dense, no light can escape.

But when the mind-blowing breakthrough finally came, almost a year ago, the discovery had to remain a secret.

So, after the amazing picture was revealed to the world morning, Bouman's excitement spread to what seemed the speed of light.

"We've been busting at the seams of what we've seen, but we had to keep our mouths closed," said Bouman, 29, a MIT graduate student who continued his studies at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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What she and a large team of scientists from MIT, Harvard and other universities had seen was the first image of a cosmic black hole 53 million light-years away, a time-wasting and merry mystery of the universe whose existence Albert Einstein had suggested for a century ago.

The project was directed by Sheperd Doeleman, a senior researcher at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"We've taken the first picture of a black hole – a disposable door out of our universe," Doeleman said.

  WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Event Horizon Telescope Director Sheperd Doeleman reveals the first photograph of a black hole at a press conference organized by the National Science Foundation at the National Press Club on April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. A network of eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents observed EHT a black hole in Messier 87, a super-cool elliptical galaxy in the Virgo constellation, for 10 days in April 2017 to make the image. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Sheperd Doeleman revealed the first picture of a black hole during a press conference organized by the National Science Foundation at the National Press Club on Wednesday in Washington, DC [19659013] On Wednesday, almost a year after researchers at the Black Hole Initiative in Cambridge applauded their discovery in private, Bouman and 200 other scientists – many of them from the Boston area – could finally talk about what many astronomers and others had thought impossible .

The image was the right thing, confirmed by test after test on data collected from eight radio telescopes around the globe. Finally, even after after exhaustive efforts to prove himself wrong.

"It's incredibly exciting. The goal was to see this thing that was essentially impossible to see about the size of an orange on the moon," Bouman said.

The project also plummeted the expertise of the sciences at MIT's Haystack Observatory in Westford, Boston University, Brandeis University and Massachusetts University.

Bouman helped develop the algorithms for what is formally called the Event Horizon Telescope project, which indicates the point where light, matter and other energy fall into an incomprehensible density of a black hole trapped there forever .

While much of the case about a black hole falls into its whirl, the new image captures the enormous circular shape of gas and dust swirling at the speed of light outside the point without return.

The black hole in the constellation Virgo is seen as a dark shadow inside the circle, a huge opening that is the size of our solar system and about 6 billion times the sun's mass.

The existence of black holes caused by the collapse of the stars has been known for decades. But Wednesday's announcement in Washington, D.C. and five other places around the world are the first to display a picture of a massive black hole.


Alan Marscher, Professor of Astronomy at Boston University.

The location of the eight observatories essentially allowed the researchers to turn the rotating soil into a huge telescope with extraordinary resolution – approx. 3 million times sharper than 20/20 vision.

Four teams of scientists worked independently to analyze their data, downloaded over 10 days in April 2017 with telescopes from Mexico to Antarctica to Hawaii.

The researchers did not talk to other teams about the details of their work when they analyzed their data. They didn't even tell their families about the results, Bouman said.

But last summer, when the teams gathered at the Black Hole Initiative to share their results, the spectacular similarities announced an outbreak of celebration and awe.

"It was great to see the first ring, but it was even more incredible that we all produced the ring," said Bouman, this year attending the California Institute of Technology faculty.

To check what they had produced, the teams tried to "completely exclude people from the equation," Bouman said.

"We didn't want to see a ring by accident, just because we wanted to see a ring," she said. "But we continued to get the ring."

Found confirmed the existence of massive black holes that some skeptics still had doubts about although science fiction and the entertainment industry have used them to capture and fear the terrestrial.

Alan Marscher, an astronomer from Boston University who led one of the teams, came to Bouman and others at a Washington party Wednesday.

"It's not so common in science that you can get such a clean affirmation of such a theoretical explanation," said Marcher. "It is very satisfying that the basic theory we have been working on for decades is actually confirmed."

MIT's Haystack Observatory, located off Route 40 in Westford, helped with the project's hardware and software.

Vincent Fish, a researcher at the observatory, said that Haystack acted as an equipment clearinghouse and sent special components and systems to record data from the black hole project to observatories around the world.

Haystack also received discs with recorded data from these observatories and processed them in a supercomputer. The Westford site was one of two where the data was collected. The other was in Bonn.

Fish said it was a great computing task: taking petabytes – equivalent to one million gigabytes – and compressing them into terabytes or less.

"In Haystack, we are about the early part of the data," he said. "I am very proud. I have been working on this project since 2007. I have spent most of my professional life on this, and I'm just really glad we got so good results from this," Fish said.

The discovery is just a starting point, said Bouman and Marscher. The research methods and algorithms will continue to improve until the matter spins around the black hole edges can be further studied.

Meanwhile, congratulations to be accepted, colleagues to thank and years of memory to share. The overview of one of the most convincing mysteries of the universe – a Western, perhaps by the big bang himself – has been revealed.

There is an extraordinary amount of work to be done. But on Wednesday night there was time for hours party in Washington at the National Air and Space Museum.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.

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