Team led by Heino Falcke presents the first photograph of a black hole

10 Apr 2019 ,

The first photograph of a black hole has been published, providing the first tangible proof that black holes exist. In Brussels, a team of astronomers led by Nijmegen-based Professor Heino Falcke presented the long expected accomplishment this afternoon.

And here it is: the long-awaited photograph of a black hole. At the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Heino Falcke, the lead researcher on the project, explained the images. The photographs were presented simultaneously at press conferences in the United States, Chile, China, Taiwan and Japan.

Idea

A week earlier, a visibly nervous Heino Falcke said ‘I’ve never had such a large live audience’, while recalling the first time he had the idea of photographing a black hole – or more correctly – photographing the outline of a black hole. At that time, almost 20 years ago, he was working at the Max Planck Institute in Bonn, Germany. ‘I was busy trying to understand black holes. I just combined one and one,’ he says in his office on the second floor of the Huygens Building.

‘I just combined one and one’

It took ten years for fellow astronomers, who were sceptical about the feasibility of the plan, to support him. ‘Then it took another ten years to develop the technology.’ The funding was at least as important as the science. In 2013, Falcke received a grant of €14 million from the European Research Council to fund his Event Horizon Telescope project.

Heino Falcke is preparing for the press conference in Brussels. Credit: Erik van ’t Hullenaar.

Collecting the data was not a simple task. ‘For this project we needed many hard disks that we had to deliver to telescopes all over the world. It was a hassle to get them to the right places on time, at locations such as the South Pole, Mexico, Greenland and Spain. And then all the hard disks had to be sent back, so we could combine all the data.’

Confidentiality

And then came the most difficult part of the project came: keeping the results quiet. ‘If you ask me something, I am the type of person who simply answers the question. I don’t like confidentiality.’ In that regard, he did look forward to the press conference this afternoon. He could finally – at long last – make the news public. ‘In such a large collaboration – almost 200 researchers in total – everyone is constantly nervous. So much is at stake. Nobody wants the news to get out prematurely.’

The photograph of the black hole is already the second dream for Falcke to come true in a year. His other childhood dream, an antenna on the hidden side the moon, has recently become reality. ‘It is very hard when all your dreams come true, it really is emotionally exhausting. I understand this now.’ He laughs. ‘No, I really do. Making a dream come true takes an incredible amount of energy. It is very hard work.’

Today, The Astrophysical Journal Letters published the scientific articles about the black hole. A live stream of the press conference in Brussels was shown at the science faculty in Nijmegen. Tomorrow, Vox also publishes a profile of astronomist Heino Falcke, as well as a report about the professor around his Brussels’ visit.

 

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