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Using a network of ground-based radio telescopes astronomers today released the highest resolution radio image of black hole ever produced.
Before giving more details, I must correct every other news report, as well as all of the press releases about this image. It is not “The first image of a black hole!” as these releases are claiming breathlessly. Radio telescope arrays have taken such images in the past, but their resolution was poor, so the result was not very imagelike. Instead, it showed contour lines in a coarse manner. Moreover, the coarseness of the resolution prevented them from seeing the black hole’s shadow itself.
This image now produced has the highest resolution ever for such a radio image, but believe me, it is still coarse. Nonetheless, it represents a giant technological leap forward. The effort required upgrades to many of these telescopes, along with significantly improved computer analysis. Now for some details:
Black holes are extraordinary cosmic objects with enormous masses but extremely compact sizes. The presence of these objects affects their environment in extreme ways, warping spacetime and super-heating any surrounding material. “If immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow — something predicted by Einstein’s general relativity that we’ve never seen before,” explained chair of the EHT Science Council Heino Falcke of Radboud University, the Netherlands. “This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87’s black hole.”
The image reveals the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times that of the Sun.
…Multiple calibration and imaging methods have revealed a ring-like structure with a dark central region — the black hole’s shadow — that persisted over multiple independent EHT observations. “Once we were sure we had imaged the shadow, we could compare our observations to extensive computer models that include the physics of warped space, superheated matter and strong magnetic fields. Many of the features of the observed image match our theoretical understanding surprisingly well,” remarks Paul T.P. Ho, EHT Board member and Director of the East Asian Observatory. “This makes us confident about the interpretation of our observations, including our estimation of the black hole’s mass.” [emphasis mine]
Note the highlighted words. To create this image they needed to combine data from numerous radio telescopes. Such work requires extensive calibration. The resulting image is manufactured, though without doubt it is manufactured from real radio data accumulated by multiple telescopes. Because those telescopes are separated by distance, however, there will always be gaps between their images, and it is in the calibration and imaging methods that the gaps are extrapolated away.
I don’t wish to imply that this image is fake. It is not. That the features persisted over multiple observations confirms that they were actually seeing the black hole’s shadow. It also confirms that these new interferometry techniques work.
However, much of the press hyperbole today is an effort to justify the many millions in tax dollars spent on this effort. The effort was absolutely worthwhile scientifically, but government bureaucracies always feel a need to oversell their work. That is partly what is happening here.