Capturing the first-ever image of the Milky Way's black hole was no easy task.
The historic image released Thursday (May 12), of what scientists call Sagittarius A* took a planet-wide set of telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The telescopes used atomic clock timing to fuse their data precisely, no easy task given that the material around Sagittarius A* the scientists were photographing changes shape every minute.
While the result still appears blurry to a non-specialist, scientists said this was because the collaboration was at the very edge of its abilities.
"We're pushing our instrument to its its limit here," Michael Johnson, an EHT team member who is also a Harvard and Smithsonian astrophysicist, told reporters during a news conference on Thursday. The image, he said, depicts the "finest features that it can see" because the telescope is at the diffraction limit, its limit of resolution.
"To make a sharper image, we need to move our telescopes further apart ... or we need to go to higher frequencies," Johnson said, adding, "We're just at our breaking point here."
And because the Event Horizon Telescope is already an array the size of Earth, moving its observatories farther apart is quite a challenge. Scientists have talked about a space telescope array that could one day image black holes at wider distances from Earth orbit. But for today, the sharpness of the new Sagittarius A* image is as best as we can make it for now given the amount of data involved.
The images available publicly also don't reveal all the fine detail of the image's resolution, added team member Katherine Bouman, a computer scientist at the California Institute of Technology.
The original data, roughly 3.5 petabytes' worth (the equivalent of 100 million TikTok videos, according to EHT), had to be compressed and altered to fit standard public distribution channels online and through the media. So much data was involved that EHT investigators had to ship hard drives to one another for the science work, rather than streaming over the Internet.
"This image is actually one of the sharpest images you've ever seen," Bouman said. "It looks blurry on the screen because we only are seeing a few pixels, but actually, it's one of the sharpest images ever made."
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace