Team that captured first image of a black hole wins international award

  • This image released Wednesday, April 10, 2019, by Event Horizon Telescope shows a black hole. Scientists revealed the first image ever made of a black hole after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the world. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories via AP/File)

About 30 scientists and engineers from two Maunakea observatories have won an international award for their involvement in the project that captured the first image of a black hole.

A team of 347 from institutions from around the world was jointly awarded the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their varying involvements in the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, a years-long project that used eight radio telescopes around the globe to generate the iconic first ever image of a black hole, which was revealed earlier this year.

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The black hole, located 53 million light-years away at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy and with a mass of 6 billion suns, was given the unofficial Hawaiian name of Powehi because two of the telescopes involved in the project — the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Submillimeter Array — are based on Maunakea.

Despite the prestigiousness of the award — JCMT support scientist Harriet Parsons called it “the Oscars of science prizes” — many of the awardees had no idea they were eligible to win until they were told Thursday morning that they did.

“What’s unusual is that, because of the decision to award the prize to everyone whose names were on any of the papers about it, only 10 of the 30 Big Island people are even astronomers,” said JCMT deputy director Jessica Dempsey. “Most of them are technicians or engineers from here or all over the world. I think that’s what makes me the proudest, the most important part, that it took all of this incredible ohana to make it work.”

JCMT telescope operator Kevin Silva said he simply happened to be scheduled to operate the telescope on the days when Event Horizon captured the image.

“It’s just so surreal,” Silva said. “I didn’t think that I would be involved in such an important project.”

“I feel like Michael Collins on the moon landing,” Parsons said, referring to the oft-forgotten Apollo 11 astronaut who stayed in orbit around the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. “You don’t expect this kind of recognition for a job well done.”

While the Breakthrough Prize offers $3 million to winning projects in fundamental physics, mathematics, life sciences, physics and mathematics, the large team involved in Event Horizon means the prize will be significantly divided. Equally distributed, the prize comes to slightly more than $8,600 per person.

Geoff Bower, chief scientist for Hawaii operations at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics — which operates the Submillimeter Array — said there are no guidelines for how awardees can spend the prize money, but added that many discussed donating their winnings to further science education in Hawaii.

“I’m donating it to the A Hua He Inoa program,” Dempsey said, referencing the University of Hawaii’s pilot program that allows Hawaiian immersion students to, among other things, choose names for celestial objects.

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Meanwhile, the Event Horizon Collaboration will continue, Bower said. The collaboration has its sights set on another black hole to be observed next year, while the project also hopes to generate sharper images of Powehi and even turn its collective eye toward the black hole at the center of our own galaxy.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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