Scientists from across the world, involved in what is known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, took the first picture of a supermassive black hole in 2019. On Thursday, they released the clearest image to date of the black hole through machine learning.
“For me, it feels like we’re really seeing it for the first time,” said lead author Lia Medeiros, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, per The Associated Press.
Published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the image is crisper and shows a skinnier ring of light around the black hole than its predecessor, which was dubbed the “orange donut,” per CBS News. The dark center of the donut is a supermassive black hole located in the Messier 87 galaxy, which is about 54 million light-years away from Earth.
Black holes can be hard to see because not even light can escape their gravitational pull, making them “black” and basically invisible to the eye. They only become visible when another object emitting light is sucked into the black hole, like the orange part of the picture — hence the doughnut shape.
But what makes the crisper image possible is the advancement of what the group calls “principal-component interferometric modeling,” or “PRIMO” for short, which is a type of artificial intelligence.
“The new machine learning techniques that we have developed provide a golden opportunity for our collective work to understand black hole physics,” said Dimitrios Psaltis, an author of the study and affiliate of Georgia Tech, in a press release.
In order to obtain a picture with the detail they need to study black holes further, a telescope as big as the Earth would have to be used, Medeiros said. But by feeding PRIMO a variety of 30,000 other photos of black holes, the machine can predict what the black hole will look and act like, giving scientists something to study further in “fields from exo-planets to medicine.”
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, the data underlying that image have many more stories to tell,” stated Medeiros. “PRIMO will continue to be a critical tool in extracting such insights.”