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Massive telescope array aims for black hole, gets gusher of data

Lucas Mearian | Aug. 19, 2015
Astronomers have turned to helium-filled hard drives to capture the petabytes of data coming from the Event Horizon Telescope

Data collected on the hard drives must be transported via jet airliner from the various telescopes to the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Mass., where the images/data are cross-compared and analyzed on a grid computer made of about 800 CPUs all connected through a 40Gbps network.

The 800 CPUs use application-specific software to create what Doeleman calls a "silicon lens," a virtual telescope that instead of light, culls the astronomical data samples into a single image that's just gigabytes in capacity.

"Here's the interesting thing. All that data that we collect is perfectly useless. It's just noise. We're only recording noise from this black hole," Doeleman said. "The only way it becomes scientifically useful is when we combine it together in that silicon lens."

The EHT produces 2,000 times more detail than the Hubble Space Telescope, an optical telescope in orbit around Earth. In a way similar to how an optical telescope collects and concentrates light, the Event horizon Telescope array collects electromagnetic radiation from 10 points around the planet, the data from which is then combined to form a picture -- in this case of the Sagittarius A* black hole.

Unlike an optical telescope, which collects light using a parabolic mirror, radio telescopes collect electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space.

Weighing in at four million times the mass of the sun, Sagittarius A* lies at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where gas and dust obscure the view in optical light. Radio waves, however, can freely stream from deep within the gravity well of the black hole  and travel 25,000 light years to earth.

There, the EHT uses the largest and most sensitive radio dishes on Earth to capture signals from the event horizon of Sagittarius A* using custom built high-speed data recorders.

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The Event Horizon Telescope is made up of radio telescopes around the world that together create a single image of whatever they're pointed at. In this case, the telescopes are focused on collecting noise emitted from Sagittarius A*, a massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: David Harvey

The goal of the EHT is to create the first image of a black hole boundary, known as the event horizon: the point at which the force of gravity is so great, even light cannot escape.

While light may not be able to escape, black holes found at the center of every galaxy are some of the brightest objects in the universe. That's because light can be seen as an aura or glow around them as matter is sucked in at many times the speed of light, which super heats it to hundreds of billions of degrees.

 

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