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Japan scientists help humanity take 1st look at black hole

Mareki Honma of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan speaks at a press conference to unveil the first-ever image of a black hole captured by an international team of scientists on April 10, 2019, in Tokyo. (Kyodo)
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)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese researchers have made a major contribution to an international team that has enabled humanity to take its first look at a black hole, an accomplishment some experts deem worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Japanese researchers helped visualize data collected by a network of radio telescopes scattered around the world, which effectively worked as an Earth-size giant telescope, and they were also a part of the team managing one of the telescopes.

A day after the image of what resembled a ring of flames was released, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the achievement "epoch-making."

"It represents a new step forward in learning the characteristics of black holes," he said, adding, "I hope research that leads us to learn more about the universe continues to make progress."

Black holes, theorized by Albert Einstein about a century ago, have been confirmed through indirect evidence but never before through an image.

The picture of the supermassive black hole in a galaxy called Messier 87, revealed Wednesday by the team led by Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard University, eliminated any doubts about existence of black holes and reinforced theories founded on their existence.

"It visually captured what had been said to exist but never been seen by anyone. This is undoubtedly worthy of a Nobel Prize," said Yoshiaki Taniguchi, a professor of galactic astronomy at the Open University of Japan, shortly after the announcement.

Capturing the black hole some 55 million light-years away, was a difficult task likened to looking for a tennis ball on the Moon with the naked eye.

While a radio telescope with a larger dish antenna can collect more data and depict a more accurate picture of a black hole, there is a limit to how big the dish can be. The international team created a network of eight radio telescopes across the world, using a method known as very-long-baseline interferometry, to overcome that limitation.

But as some radio waves are beyond the reach of the network, the team used statistics to estimate the missing data.

Mareki Homma from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and other Japanese researchers used what is known as sparse modeling to develop a data-processing method for putting together images.

Kotaro Moriyama, a researcher with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the Japanese team made sure of the credibility of the data they obtained by generating images in 60,000 different ways.

Japan also contributed as a member of an operation team of ALMA, a giant telescope in Chile, which is one of the eight telescopes taking part in the network.

Combining some 40 antennas with a diameter of 12 meters each, the researchers in Chile effectively created a large radio telescope with a diameter of 70 meters.

As the telescope is located in a desert at an altitude of 5,000 meters, where low atmospheric pressure prevents the operation team from using hard discs to read out data, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan also provided technologies necessary for sending data to a facility at a lower altitude using light fiber cables.

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