From 55 million light years away . . . to Westford
Driving up the winding road to the Haystack Observatory in Westford is almost like going back 50 years to the set of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — complete with a retro-looking white sphere that’s 150 feet in diameter and scientists tinkering with antennas.
Haystack, operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, played a key role in the worldwide project that last month produced the first image of a black hole, about 55 million light-years from Earth. The project, known as the Event Horizon Telescope, involved teams of astronomers at eight telescope sites around the globe.
As in the Stanley Kubrick movie, there is an amazing computer here, but it’s a long way from what HAL was. Researchers at Haystack developed the supercomputer used to bundle data from those telescopes to create the now-famous image that was made public on April 10.
The computer is a giant whirring box of hard drives known as the correlator.
It has blinking lights, heavy-duty cables, and rows of slots for racks to insert hard drives. The correlator is used to combine the telescopes’ data to produce a much bigger and more detailed image than any single instrument can capture, making visible objects that otherwise could never be seen.
MIT scientist Geoffrey Crew, one of the masterminds behind the black hole project, works out of a small, nondescript office here at Haystack.
After a career involving complex projects — undertakings that are difficult to explain to nonscientists — Crew says he’s happy to be able to talk about something people can comprehend, at least on a superficial level.
Getting to the black-hole moment was, as you might expect, challenging. Scientists for decades had wanted to see the edges of a black hole — which can be simply described as a part of space with a gravitational pull so intense that nothing, not even light, can escape it.
“If we don’t have [the correlator] tuned up exactly right, we don’t see anything, and if we have it tuned up exactly right, it’s huge,” Crew says.
Crew has been involved in the project for years. As part of it, he made several trips to Chile to bring the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope — better known as ALMA — up to speed. That site has 66 radio telescopes and is jointly run by Chile, the United States, and several other countries. It was one of the sites used to create the image of the black hole.
The science can be physically demanding as well as mentally taxing. At the ALMA site, for instance, Crew and other scientists had to wake up at odd hours at night to collect data. The 16,000-foot elevation made it hard to breathe.
“Your heart is racing to keep up with the oxygen flow and then you’ve got all the stress of ‘What could go wrong?’ ” he said.
And as they collect the data, the scientists don’t know if it will correlate correctly.
Crew, who starting working at Haystack in 2010, saw the black hole image about six months before the public, in the office of a colleague who helped piece it together. Four groups of experts made separate images then compared them to determine whether they were identical.
That first view lived up to Crew’s expectations.
“I was just like wow,” he said. “It’s really cool.”
Scientists at the observatory, which was founded in 1970, study the origins of the universe, the births and deaths of stars, and the energy that comes from the sun. They also research the structure of the galaxy, its planets, and the atmosphere.
The dome houses a telescope that’s about 121 feet wide and looks like a giant satellite dish. The surface of the antenna telescope, covering more than 1.5 acres, is designed to withstand winds greater than 120 miles per hour. It was built in the 1960s but has been updated with newer technology over the years.
The dish itself spins quickly and silently. During the day, it’s used to track satellites. At night, astronomers use it to detect stars and other objects in space, using radio waves.
There’s other research going on at Haystack on a daily basis that’s related to Earth, not-far- away planets, and stars. And scientists are creating devices to track the decay of icebergs. The small, cylindrical contraptions will be deployed in the Arctic, where they will sit atop ice as it breaks off and floats away from larger ice formations. One was shipped to an iceberg in Greenland this week.