NRAO staff played role in black hole image

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- The first-ever image of a black hole, released last week, made international news. The scientific breakthrough supports Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and some of the scientists who helped on the project work in Charlottesville at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

"To actually see the image and the fruit of all that labor was extraordinary," said Anthony Remijan, who manages a team of about 30 people who work on the ALMA Array Telescope.

It’s made up of 66 hypersensitive antennas set in the Atacama desert in Chile, more than 16,000 feet above sea level, and it played a critical role in creating the image.

“This was a project that was started through an ALMA development program from the collaborators up at the Smithsonian Institute,” Remijan said. “They came down to ALMA with a great idea, to link all these telescopes around the world, and we basically gave them the time and resources they needed in order to do this project."

Chris Jacques, an NRAO engineer, provided some of those complex resources.

"We needed to first of all install and commission an atomic clock called a hydrogen maser, which is an ultra-accurate timepiece which allows all the telescopes that have one to be exactly synchronized," Jacques said.

Technical project manager John Effland was on a team that built high frequency wavelength detectors used in several of the telescopes that captured the image. Maintaining those detectors is an ongoing challenge.

"Astronomers want maximum sensitivity, of course, when they use these telescopes,” Effland said. “So in order for the radios to have that kind of sensitivity, one of the great challenges of this job is we have to cool those components to minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit."

None of the Charlottesville-based NRAO employees were present when the first image was created from the data, but Remijan says that didn't dampen the thrill.

"We knew that we were there on the start of the entire process,” he said. “We knew that this process was going to work."

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