Observations at the different sites were coordinated using atomic clocks, called hydrogen masers, accurate to within one second every million years. And, on one night in April , everything came together. The sheer volume of data generated was also unprecedented — in one night the EHT generated enough data to fill half a tonne of hard drives.
This meant waiting for half a year for the South Pole data, which could only be shipped out at the end of Antarctic winter. The observations are already giving scientists new insights into the weird environment close to black holes, where gravity is so fierce that reality as we know it is distorted beyond recognition.
At the event horizon, light is bent in a perfect loop around the black hole, meaning if you stood there you would be able to see the back of your own head. Scientists are also hoping to understand more about the origin of jets of radiation that are blasted out from the poles of some black holes at close to the speed of light, creating brilliant beacons that can be picked out across the cosmos.
The answer may be maybe not.
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The Event Horizon Telescope relies on a technique called interferometry. Similarly, with the EHT, the signals from all eight telescopes have to be combined and fed through a computer to turn a mountain of incomprehensible blips into a visual picture. This presented an unprecedented computational challenge: the amount of data collected was so enormous that it had to be physically shipped to a central location, the MIT Haystack observatory, in the form of half a tonne of hard drives. Developing new, sophisticated algorithms was a crucial part of turning the EHT data into an image.
These needed to not only combine the data but also filter out noise caused by factors like atmospheric humidity, which warps radio waves, and precisely synchronising the signals captured by the far-flung telescopes. While still studying at MIT, the computer scientist Katie Bouman came up with a new algorithm to stitch together data collected across the EHT network. At one stage, this involved the collaboration splitting into four separate teams which analysed the data independently until they were absolutely confident of their findings.
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The facility, which began operations last year, is located in one of the best places on the planet to study the heart of the Milky Way; the galactic center passes right overhead and remains observable for hours. To observe that faraway place, astronomers must observe in forms of electromagnetic radiation other than visible light, like radio.
Read: The Milky Way could crash into another galaxy billions of years earlier than predicted. The astronomers behind the bubble discovery looked for a specific kind of radio emission generated in turbulent regions of space, where electrons move at close to the speed of light and bounce around magnetic fields.
Magnetic Field May Be Keeping Milky Way’s Black Hole Quiet | NASA
As the charged particles zoom, they give off radio waves that can illuminate cosmic structures in the vicinity. By capturing this radiation, astronomers have illuminated the contours of the bulbs and the structures they contain.
The bubbles look like a carefully spun, delicate work of interstellar art. But they are the aftermath of a violent, cosmic cataclysm that unfolded millions of years ago. Camilo and other astronomers are considering a couple of explanations. A flurry of dying stars at the center of the galaxy might have infused the medium with enormous amounts of energy as they exploded.
Or it could be that the black hole experienced a flare-up, as black holes around the universe have been known to do. Sometimes, black holes consume nearby stellar material so quickly that they end up regurgitating some of it. The result is two luminous jets of radiation that can outshine entire galaxies. Our supermassive black hole is in a quiet chapter of its life, but astronomers suspect that it has previously experienced this active phase.
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Whatever happened, it was powerful enough to create a burst of energy that, as the researchers put it, literally punched through the interstellar medium. The ancient explosion inflated the bubbles and, as they expanded, excited the electrons that, together with nearby magnetic fields, produce radio emissions we can detect all the way from here. The heart of the galaxy is home to other bubbles, recorded in other wavelengths. The Fermi bubbles, named for the 20th-century scientist who studied high-energy physics, are even larger, stretching about 25, light-years above and below the galactic center.
Astronomers discovered them nearly a decade ago with a space telescope designed to detect gamma rays. Camilo speculates that perhaps the Fermi bubbles might be the dumping grounds of eons of many cosmic explosions—a larger, older version of the radio-emitting bubbles his team found.
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