It Was Something Mankind Had Never Seen. Now It's Clearer

The first-ever image of a black hole gets sharpened with help from AI
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 13, 2023 9:57 AM CDT
It Was Something Mankind Had Never Seen. Now It's Clearer
This combination of images provided by researcher Lia Medeiros shows images of the M87 black hole released in 2019, left, and an updated one for 2023.   (Lia Medeiros via AP)

It was something mankind had never seen before—and now we're seeing it like never before. The first-ever image of a black hole captured in 2019 revealed a fuzzy, fiery doughnut-shaped object. Now, researchers have used artificial intelligence to give that cosmic beauty shot a touch-up. The updated picture, published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, keeps the original shape, but with a skinnier ring and a sharper resolution. The image released in 2019 gave a peek at the enormous black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, 53 million light-years from Earth. A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles. It was made using data gathered by the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of radio telescopes around the world, showing swirling light and gas.

But even with many telescopes working together, gaps remained in the data, reports the AP. In the latest study, scientists relied on the same data and used machine learning to fill in the missing pieces. The resulting picture looks similar to the original, but with a thinner "doughnut" and a darker center, researchers said. "For me, it feels like we’re really seeing it for the first time," said lead author Lia Medeiros, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey.

Mederiros explains in a statement that the upgrade doesn't just have cosmetic implications: "Since we cannot study black holes up close, the detail of an image plays a critical role in our ability to understand its behavior. The width of the ring in the image is now smaller by about a factor of two, which will be a powerful constraint for our theoretical models and tests of gravity." She calls that realization about its width "incredibly exciting," in comments to NPR, as it's one that will help scientists better understand what's occurring as matter circles the black hole and falls in.

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"If we have more matter falling into the black hole, it'll create a thicker ring. And if we have a smaller amount of matter falling in, it should create a thinner ring, right?" she says. Medeiros said the team plans to use machine learning on other images of celestial objects, with the Washington Post flagging their next target: Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy whose portrait was revealed last May. (More black hole stories.)

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