On Wednesday, astronomers shocked the world by revealing the first-ever image of a black hole. To understand the magnitude of this feat, let’s first give a little perspective: the sun is far enough away that it takes sunlight traveling at the speed of light 8 minutes to reach Earth. This black hole, located in the center of galaxy M87, is 3.6 trillion times as far away as the sun (55 million light years). Even for a supermassive object, it is so distant from us here on Earth that it would be like trying to photograph an object the size of an orange on the moon. So how did astrophysicists take a picture of it?
They figured out that the only way to resolve an image of a black hole would be to create a telescope with an aperture the diameter of the Earth. That’s obviously impossible, but at Light we know that many small cameras working together can match or even outperform one big one. Of course in this case, their cameras were radio telescopes. So, instead of an Earth-sized telescope, astrophysicists created an array of smaller radio telescopes located around the globe, from Antarctica to California to Greenland to France in a network known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Each telescope then measured the radio signal emitted from the black hole and combined that data. But what about the missing pieces around Earth where the telescopes couldn’t gather a signal? Those were filled in using highly-advanced AI algorithms to extrapolate the missing data. By doing this, researchers have created a computational telescope the size of Earth. The astrophysicists then combined the real data with the algorithmic data to create the first image of the black hole.
Computational imaging and AI have been huge buzzwords over the past few years, and we are excited to be leading the charge. Similar to the Event Horizon Telescope we use multiple cameras working together, but instead of trying to make them Earth-sized, we have the opposite challenge: trying to fit everything into the smallest possible package. We also use cameras instead of radio telescopes — 5 of them in the Nokia 9 PureView smartphone, and 16 of them in our L16 camera — to create images with stunning resolution and incredibly high dynamic range. We’re proud to see computational imaging being used on literally the world’s biggest stage to conduct groundbreaking astronomical research. Congratulations to the Event Horizon Telescope team on a spectacular intergalactic shot!
Official NASA Press Release on the Black Hole
Event Horizon Telescope Homepage