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Ever wondered what a black hole looks like? MIT is here to help

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The collision of two black holes is seen in this image from a computer simulation released earlier this year.REUTERS

We could be one step closer to knowing what a black hole looks like, thanks to a new algorithm developed by MIT researchers.

The method, called Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors (CHIRP), would take data from radio telescopes across the planet and stitch it together to produce the first image of a black hole, MIT said.

It is impossible to use an Earth-based telescope to get a look at a black hole, the researchers said.

"[The closest black hole is] so small that it would be equivalent to taking an image of a grapefruit on the moon," said Katie Bouman, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, who developed the algorithm. "To image something with that small of detail, you would need a telescope about the size of the Earth."


While Earth has a diameter of less than 13,000 kilometers, a telescope would need to have a 10,000-kilometer diameter to image a black hole, Bouman said.

The solution proposed by MIT is to use radio signals and take measurements from "widely divergent locations" around the world. Six observatories have already agreed to take part, MIT said.

"Just like how radio frequencies will go through walls, they pierce through galactic dust. We would never be able to see into the center of our galaxy in visible wavelengths because there's too much stuff in between," Bouman said.

Bouman's algorithm aims to fill in the holes in data from the various telescopes and paint a picture based on the data and what is already known about black holes, she said.

This new imaging method would be significant for studying the environment around black holes and proving Einstein's theory of general relativity, Bouman said. If the final image shows a black hole that is the size it is expected to be based on Einstein's theory, it would be "great evidence" that the theory holds up even in "extreme cases," she said.


Bouman is set to present the CHIRP algorithm at a conference this month, MIT said. Bouman worked on the research with advisers and colleagues at MIT and Harvard.

Observations will begin next spring, when conditions are most conducive for telescope visibility, Bouman said. Once all the data is collected, Bouman hopes to immediately begin making the black hole image, which she likened to putting together puzzle pieces.

"We've never actually seen what a black hole looks like," she said. "And even though we have predictions, and people generate videos like in [the movie] Interstellar, it's great to actually be able to probe it ... and be able to construct those images."

J.D. Capelouto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto. Olivia Arnold can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @olivia_arnold12.