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'Black Hole Hunters' Shows Epic Chase to Capture First Images

From frigid Antarctica to a high-altitude location in Chile, a new Smithsonian Channel documentary brings a sense of wonder to viewers around the world as they see how eight telescopes worked together in extreme conditions to capture the first black hole images.

The one-hour documentary, called "Black Hole Hunters," debuts today (April 12) at 9 p.m. EDT and at 9 p.m. PDT, depending on your time zone. It follows Harvard University astronomer Shep Doeleman and his team, which this week released the first images of a black hole, created using a networked set of telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

Earlier this week, newly revealed EHT images revealed the boundaries of a huge black hole embedded in the elliptical galaxy M87. The four images wowed audiences around the world, while scientists said the pictures have the potential to vastly change our understanding of black holes in the long term.

Related: Images: Black Holes of the Universe

EHT's telescopes work together to create a "virtual telescope" that is the diameter of Earth, allowing scientists to capture very faint objects in the sky. As Doeleman explains in a trailer for the documentary, "You asked why it hasn't been done before. It's because it's really, really hard." The amount of data generated is so vast — petabytes upon petabytes — that scientists found it faster to FedEx hard drives to each other rather than to work through the internet.

Images from the trailer show scientists working together around the world, which includes needing to maintain the South Pole Telescope that operates at Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. One scientist appears before the camera dressed in goggles and a thick snowsuit. "It's pretty cold; the wind chill is about minus 70," he remarks laconically; minus 70 degrees Celsius is about minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the documentary trailer says EHT has the potential to challenge Einstein's theory of general relativity that describes how massive objects warp space-time, early results from EHT show that so far, Einstein was bang-on. 

Einstein's calculations show that black holes should have an event horizon — a zone surrounding the black hole where nothing can escape, including light. Also, this event horizon should be a particular size (which depends on a black hole's mass) and roughly circular. The new EHT images show all of these things. 

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.