The Sound of Science - 'Photographing a Black Hole'

Sep 27, 2019

Jeremy: I’m Jeremy Benson

Sam: And I’m Sam Watt

Jeremy: And this is the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

Sam: Today’s question comes from Peter who asks, “How can scientists take a picture of black hole?”

Jeremy: Let’s see if we can’t shed some light on that one for you Peter. You may have heard the team that produced the first black hole images just received an award for their work.  But how do you take a picture of something that doesn’t emit any light?

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Sam: To create their images, scientists didn’t use the kind of camera you have in your phone. They used a network of radio telescopes spread across the globe. By synchronizing telescopes from different parts of the world, we can effectively create a telescope that’s almost as big as the earth.

Jeremy: This allows us to collect more information which gives us much better resolution than we could see with a smaller telescope. The Event Horizon telescope network used to create the black hole images is powerful enough to resolve an object the size of an orange sitting on the surface of the moon.

Sam: But these telescopes weren’t looking at visible light. Instead, radio telescopes were used to observe infrared light given off by the excited gas surrounding the black hole.  

Jeremy: This allowed the scientists to “see” the silhouette created by the black hole itself against the glow of the surrounding gas. 

Sam: But because the telescopes were spread so far apart, analyzing and combining all that data was no easy task. Each site had so much data that it couldn’t be sent over the internet. The physical hard drives had to all be mailed to a central location and the data combined and analyzed there.

Jeremy: And combining and processing all that data took some cutting-edge computer software. Even with all that information, there were still a lot of incomplete details that had to be extrapolated from the existing data.

Sam: Scientists had to design new algorithms that could handle that much data, organize it in a meaningful way, and predict and fill in missing information. This was no small order.

Jeremy: But they were able to create software that was up to the task, and we now have the first ever images of a black hole to show for it.

Sam: And engineers are already looking at ways that similar technologies could help with everything from self-driving cars to medical imaging.

Jeremy: Thanks for your question Peter. If you have your own question you’d like to hear us answer on-air, be sure and send them to STEMoutreach@niu.edu

Sam: This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

Jeremy: Where you learn something new every day.