black hole image petabytes astronomy data
PREDICTIVE

A Peek Behind the Black Hole Image’s Petabytes of Data

A typical low-resolution photo you take with a cellphone is roughly 3.5 megabytes1. High-resolution photos are much larger.

But the first-ever image of a supermassive black hole was orders of magnitudes larger, needing approximately 4.5 petabytes of astronomy data. Just one petabyte is equivalent to over 4,000 typical cellphone photos per day for close to 200 years.1 The Event Horizon Telescope project captured almost five times2 that in the span of one week in April 2017 to create an image of the black hole in the galaxy Messier 87 (or M87*).

Capturing M87* was no small feat — one researcher described3 it as similar to taking a photo of an orange on the surface of the moon from Earth. To create an instrument powerful enough to collect images of the black hole millions of light-years away, researchers connected a series of highly-sophisticated telescopes around the world to create one virtual, Earth-sized telescope using a method called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Each individual telescope that was part of the virtual telescope, called the Event Horizon Telescope, was then synchronized together with GPS and highly-accurate atomic clocks to ensure consistency in the images they captured. Each data point the telescopes captured was digitized, time-stamped and saved to hard drives.

astronomy data

The team needed those hard drives to be powerful enough to collect the megabytes of astronomy data flowing from the telescopes each second. Enter: Western Digital’s HGST Ultrastar® HelioSeal® hard disk drives. These helium-filled drives offered higher capacity than air-filled drives and required less energy. The helium also allowed them to withstand the extreme climates of some of these telescopes, from freezing temperatures in Antarctica to the high altitudes in Mexico, where air-filled drives simply don’t function properly.

Once the drives collected the astronomy data, they were transported (not via the internet, but by plane and by car3) to research centers in the U.S. and Germany for processing—the end result of which, of course, is the black hole photo that captivated the internet earlier this year.

black hole image


This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.

Article Sources:

  1. Average file sizes vary but cellphone  photos are generally ~3-3.5 MB. Examples of the number of photos that can be stored are provided for illustrative purposes only. Results will vary based on resolution, content, file compression, file format, file size, host device, pre-loaded files, settings, software and other factors.
  2. The Hidden Shipping and Handling Behind That Black-Hole Picture
  3. How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole

Infographic Sources:

  1. How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole
  2. How Long Would It Take To Travel To The Nearest Star?
  3. How They Took the First Picture of a Black Hole
  4. This is the first photo of a black hole
  5. Astronomers Capture First-Ever Image of a Supermassive Black Hole
  6. Black hole images captured in world first
  7. Taking that picture of a black hole required massive amounts of data
  8. Why the Event Horizon Telescope took so long to image a black hole
  9. Average file sizes vary but typical low-resolution cellphone photos are generally ~3-3.5 MB. Examples of the number of photos that can be stored are provided for illustrative purposes only. Results will vary based on resolution, content, file compression, file format, file size, host device, pre-loaded files, settings, software and other factors.
  10. Behind the Scenes of the First Black Hole Photo
  11. Algorithms gave us the black hole picture. She’s the 29-year-old scientist who helped create them

 

2 Comments

Leave a Reply