In April of 2017, a young MIT graduate student took to the stage at a Ted Talk and outlined a plan to do the seemingly impossible – take a picture of a black hole.
Two years later and Katie Bouman, just 29, has done just that, part of a team who have just validated a pillar of science put forward by Albert Einstein more than a century ago.
“We’re a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that’s what it took to achieve something once thought impossible,” she told the Guardian.
Black holes are monstrous celestial entities exerting gravitational fields so vicious that no matter or light can escape, making observing them immensely difficult.
Bouman likened it to “taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon, but with a radio telescope”.
The scientists looked for a ring of light - super-heated disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon - around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole. This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.
The key was to use radio waves. Speaking in 2016, Bouman said: “Radio wavelengths come with a lot of advantages. Just like how radio frequencies will go through walls, they pierce through galactic dust.
“We would never be able to see into the centre of our galaxy in visible wavelengths because there’s too much stuff in between.”
Bouman’s role was to develop a a new algorithm that could stitch together data collected from radio telescopes around the world, effectively turning the entire planet into a large satellite dish in an endeavour called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project,
This created a lot of data and one of the pictures doing the rounds on social media is Bouman with the stacks of hard drives on which it was contained.
Once the data was collected, Bouman’s algorithm turned into into a coherent image and a photo posted to her Facebook account shows the very moment it all came together.
It’s captioned: ”Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed.”
She told Time magazine: "It’s been really hard to keep our lips sealed. I hadn’t even told my family about the picture."
There’s no overstating the feat – the team’s observations strongly validated the theory of general relativity proposed in 1915 by Einstein, the famed theoretical physicist, to explain the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces.
“We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago,” said astrophysicist Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Harvard & Smithsonian.
And Bouman, now at CalTech, looks set to go down the history books if the reaction on social media is anything to go by as people heap praise upon her.
The M87 black hole observed by the scientific team resides about 54 million light-years from Earth and boasts an almost-unimaginable mass of 6.5 billion times that of the sun.
A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).
The discovery provides a unique insight into the ruthless gravitational fields which remain impossible to see with the naked eye.
Because one side of the ring is brighter than the other, scientists believe that the black hole, or matter around it, is rotating.
“This is a huge day in astrophysics,” said US National Science Foundation Director France Cordova. “We’re seeing the unseeable.”
“It did bring tears to my eyes,” Cordova added.