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A little-known MIT facility northwest of Boston played a key role in the picture of a black hole

MIT’s Haystack Observatory
MIT’s Haystack ObservatoryMIT Haystack Observatory

A large but little known MIT observatory in a rural area northwest of Boston played a major role in the effort to create the first-ever picture of a black hole.

The Haystack Observatory, off Route 40 in Westford, played a role on both the hardware and software side of the project.

Vincent Fish, a research scientist at the observatory, said it served as an equipment clearinghouse, sending special components and systems for recording the data the black hole project needed to observatories worldwide.

It also received from those observatories disks with recorded data and processed them in an on-site supercomputer.

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It was one of the two sites where the data was assembled. The other was in Bonn, Germany. Fish said it was a major computational task: taking petabytes and compressing it down to terabytes or less.

“At Haystack, we deal with the early part of the data,” he said.

That data was then forwarded to researchers worldwide for further work.

“I’m very proud. I’ve been working on this project since 2007. I’ve spent most of my professional life on this and I’m just really glad we got such great results out of this,” Fish said in a telephone interview.

The observatory, about an hour from MIT in Cambridge, includes a radio telescope housed in a dome that looks like Epcot Center. The telescope was completed in 1964, during the Cold War, and it was used both for defense purposes and for science, the Globe reported in 2014.

The article included an interview with Harvard’s Sheperd Doeleman, who said he was stitching together a network of radiotelescopes to essentially make a telescope as large as the earth. Doeleman was the scientist who unveiled the stunning picture of the black hole at Wednesday’s news conference.

Algorithms to examine the data were also developed at MIT.

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“The goal was to see this thing that was essentially impossible to see, about the size of an orange on the moon,” said Katherine Bouman, a Cambridge resident and MIT doctoral graduate who has worked on the project for nearly six years.

Bouman helped develop algorithms to verify that the image of the black hole, developed by four teams of scientists working independently on the project, was not the result of human biases that -- no matter how scientifically scrupulous -- deeply wanted a black hole to be discovered.

“We didn’t want to accidentally see a ring just because we wanted to see a ring,” said Bouman, who has done postdoctoral work with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But we kept getting the ring.”