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How a graduate student helped capture the first black hole image

12 April 2019

The project coordinated measurements from six radio telescopes from observatories across the globe to overcome the issue that no single telescope antenna dish in the world is large enough to capture the radio waves from a black hole. Originally from IN, her father is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. In a photograph shared on Facebook, Bouman shows her surprised self reacting to the historical picture being processed.

Astronomers on Wednesday unveiled the first photo of a black hole, one of the star-devouring monsters scattered throughout the Universe and obscured by impenetrable shields of gravity.

"'Yes captain Bouman, that was the first black hole imaged by your ancestor using Earth's pre-warp imaging technology'".

"Three years ago MIT grad student Katie Bouman led the creation of a new algorithm to produce the first-ever image of a black hole", MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab wrote on Twitter. "The imaging algorithms we develop fill in the gaps of data we are missing in order to reconstruct a picture of the black hole".

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The volume of data - several petabytes (several million billion bytes) - was contained in a mountain of computer hard drives weighing several hundred pounds that had to be physically transported to the Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts, operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to her website, Bouman is now a postdoctoral fellow with EHT and will start as an assistant professor in Caltech's computing and mathematical sciences department.

That's what it was like for scientists trying to capture an image of a black hole in space.

"This black hole is so far away from us, so from that this ring appears incredibly small, the same size to us as an orange on the surface of the moon", Bouman said in a 2016 TedTalk.

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The fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them hard.

As the project's website explains, the light data can tell researchers about the structure of the black hole, but there is still missing data which stops them from creating a complete image.

The jaw-dropping image of M87 is largely thanks to algorithms created by Harvard graduate Katie Bouman.

"No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards insane to get something that wasn't this ring", Bouman said.

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But last summer, when the teams gathered at the Black Hole Initiative to share their findings, the startling similarities prompted an outpouring of celebration and awe. "I'm really excited for the future of this (study)", she said. Using imaging algorithms like Bouman's, researchers created three scripted code pipelines to piece together the picture.

How a graduate student helped capture the first black hole image