1 year ago, the world saw a black hole for the first time. Here's how it got a Hawaiian name.

The historic first image of a supermassive black hole ever recorded shows the shadow of the monster black hole inside the distant galaxy M87.
The historic first image of a supermassive black hole ever recorded shows the shadow of the monster black hole inside the distant galaxy M87. (Image credit: EHT Collaboration)

One year ago, scientists captured the unphotographable when the Event Horizon Telescope unveiled a fiery orange ring on a black background that became instantly recognizable. Behold, the first photo of a black hole.

The black hole in that image lurks at the heart of a galaxy known as M87, which is the sort of moniker modern astronomers use to name what they study. The black hole doesn't even get its own name, independent of the galaxy that surrounds it. It's a, let's say, abstruse way to refer to an object containing billions of times the mass of our sun packed together unimaginably densely. A program affiliated with one of the sites involved in the discovery quickly offered an alternative name, Pōwehi, and a new way of thinking about how astronomers could reflect the communities they work within.

The program, A Hua He Inoa, is based on Hawaii Island and is the brainchild of John De Fries, a native Hawaiian who was inspired to create a new way for Hawaiians to relate to the astronomy research conducted by the dozen observatories atop the volcano Maunakea. The site is marked by contention between scientists who value its pristine observing conditions and native Hawaiians who consider the peak sacred. De Fries, who is president of the Native Sun Business Group, realized that a naming program could help foster communication and respect between the groups tied to the mountaintop.

Related: Eureka! Scientists photograph a black hole for the 1st time

"My Hawaiian ancestors treated astronomy as a sacred science, which is not unusual for native people," De Fries told Space.com in January at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. "The naming, for me, was about elevating the work on Maunakea, to become closer to becoming a sacred science."

In 2017, De Fries sent a memo to the Hawaiian cultural group that advises the Maunakea Observatories outlining his vision for a naming program, and a working group was assembled to meet in early 2018.

Then, the universe intervened: an interstellar object hurtled through our solar system and, for the first time ever, scientists spotted it. The telescope that made the discovery, called Pan-STARRS, is located on a different Hawaiian mountaintop on a different island, but the team decided the occasion was worth meeting.

As a result, the object was dubbed 'Oumuamua, which is typically translated as "visitor from afar arriving first." The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which oversees all official names for solar system objects, recognized the name about a month after 'Oumuamua's discovery.

What to call a black hole

By the time scientists released the black hole image, the working group was up and running. Among the eight Event Horizon Telescope observatories involved in the data collection, which took place in 2017, were two facilities on the summit of Maunakea: the East Asian Observatory's James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Submillimeter Array.

After discussions, the working group came up with the name Pōwehi (pronounced poh-VEH-hee). The name reflects the way astronomers needed to capture the halo of light surrounding the black hole in order to "see" the object itself, or rather its shadow, and can be translated as "embellished source of unending creation," according to a statement from the University of Hawaii, which oversees the astronomy district atop Maunakea. The name was suggested by native Hawaiian speaker Larry Kimura based on his studies of the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant.

Related: The biggest black hole findings of 2019

Unlike 'Oumuamua, the name Pōwehi has not been recognized by the IAU, but that doesn't faze De Fries.

"Whether the IAU certifies these names or not, we in Hawaii, these will be our names," he said. "It'd be great to get global acceptance and recognition and have that be the global standard, but if we don't achieve that the names are still ours."

De Fries said that he hopes Pōwehi is just the first of many names for the world-famous black hole. He and others associated with the naming project attended a conference held by the Event Horizon Telescope in late 2019, where he said he suggested that astronomers with the project explore similar partnerships with the local communities surrounding other observatories.

"Because of the unique make-up of your group, maybe the things that you do collectively may end up with eight different names, and I would encourage you to turn to the indigenous people of your areas on the planet and invite them into a process," he said. "Because your equipment, your instruments tend to be on the tallest mountain in the area, you are on somebody's sacred site. So just come to grips with that."

Hawaii's space legacy

In addition to 'Oumuamua and Pōwehi, the A Hua He Inoa program has facilitated the naming process for four other objects, three asteroids and a quasar. For those names, the program brought together Hawaiian language and culture experts, scientists involved in the research and native Hawaiian children to have a conversation about what aspects of Hawaiian culture the specific object reflects.

Those are conversations that deeply affect both the scientists and the children, Ka'iu Kimura, executive director of the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center, a museum and cultural center based in Hilo, Hawaii, that helps run the program, told Space.com at the same meeting in January. She said such conversations are particularly important given the contention surrounding Maunakea. (A group of native Hawaiians spent eight months blocking construction access on the mountain to a massive new observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope, retreating this spring only because of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures designed to slow the virus.)

Related: The Thirty Meter Telescope: How a volcano in Hawaii became a battleground for astronomy

Students who have taken part in the A Hua He Inoa program "may have conflicted feelings of astronomy in general on Maunakea, but despite all of that, they verbalize their appreciation for the knowledge that astronomy has helped to connect them with, knowledge that is documented in very old records our people have passed on," Kimura said. "For them to make that connection and then be able to contribute in their own way through a name is huge."

Neither Kimura nor De Fries suggests that Hawaiian names for discoveries made with such instruments will be enough to address the controversy surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope or other tensions between astronomers and native Hawaiians.

"This naming initiative for me is no less an act of self-determination, it's no less a form of activism for me," De Fries said. "Who would have the audacity to come in and tell astronomers, 'You've got to start thinking about doing this'? For me, it is about taking ownership of it as a native Hawaiian in Hawaii on topics that are important. … I'm okay with using contemporary tools to achieve traditional practices at a higher level."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.

  • DB Kelly
    I saw the TV documentary about this, it looked to me like the scientists worked and worked and played and played with the numbers until they got the image they were looking for. They could have adjusted those settings until Bugs Bunny showed up.
  • COLGeek
    DB Kelly said:
    I saw the TV documentary about this, it looked to me like the scientists worked and worked and played and played with the numbers until they got the image they were looking for. They could have adjusted those settings until Bugs Bunny showed up.
    Source? Please provide a link to what you are referring.
  • DB Kelly
    I saw this on the Discovery channel or History channel I believe, an hour long doc on this and they started with strange and odd shapes in the image and they changed and adjusted parameters along the way changing the image until at the end of the show they finally tuned the outcome to the image of a black hole. It was not believable to me.
  • COLGeek