South Africa celebrates astrophysicist in first black hole image team

Growing up in South Africa’s Free State where he had a good view of the Milky Way, inspired his dreams to become an astronaut

South Africa is celebrating its astrophysicist, Professor Roger Deane, who was part of the international team of scientists that captured the first photograph of a black hole. The image was unveiled simultaneously in six press conferences across the globe on Wednesday.

The ground-breaking image was created by a large scale international research collaboration, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The EHT is comprised of a network of 10 radio telescopes scattered across the globe, functioning as a single receiver. As well as the more than 200 scientists from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America who collect and analyse huge amounts of data from it.

This includes Prof. Deane from the Department of Physics at the University of Pretoria, as well as his post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Iniyan Natarajan, from the Department of Physics and Electronics at Rhodes University. Their contribution was to build a highly realistic simulation of this “earth-sized” instrument that helped astronomers better understand what the real black hole ought to look like.

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“As with any major physics experiment, one needs to understand the effects that the instrument itself may have on the data.

“In the case of the EHT, we built a simulation package that physically modelled a number of non-desirable effects that prevent one from seeing any sort of black hole shadow feature,” Deane said.

M-87 Black hole

The capture of this image marks a major scientific achievement as it provides actual confirmation of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Black holes are extremely compressed cosmic objects, containing enormous amounts of mass within a tiny space. Their presence affects their surroundings in extreme ways, by warping spacetime and super-heating any material falling into it. Nothing emerges from a black hole; not even light.

(First Photo of Black Hole Graphic): The first photograph of a black hole located in the M87 galaxy in the Virgo constellation, 50 billion lights years from Earth. SOPHIE RAMIS, SABRINA BLANCHARD, JONATHAN WALTER / AFP

The captured image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the constellation of Virgo. This black hole is located 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times larger than our sun.

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Deane’s research group will now focus on expanding their simulations.

Africans in space research

“I’m just proud and honoured to play my small part in this amazing international team”, said Deane, who attended the unveiling in Brussels.

He revealed that growing up in South Africa’s Free State where he had a good view of the Milky Way, inspired his dreams to become an astronaut.

Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, Professor Tawana Kupe, said of Deane, in a statement on the milestone achievement.

“This young scientist is an inspiration to scientists on the African continent. This discovery is a great example of what can be achieved if we work together across borders and disciplines.”

Deane and his research group are part of a wider cohort of scientists on the continent realising significant milestones in the areas of astronomy and computational intelligence. Their work is made possible with the critical support of various African government.

Last year South Africa launched MeerKAT, a 64-dish radio telescope system 50 times more powerful than any other on earth. MeerKAT was built as part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-billion dollar international project to create the world’s largest radio telescope.

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South African deputy President David Mabuza (2nd R) officially inaugurates one of a 64-dish radio telescope system during an official unveiling ceremony on July 13, 2018 in Carnarvon. – South Africa on July 13 unveiled the planet’s super radio telescope which will be at least 50 times more powerful than any telescope on earth. Deputy President on July 13, formally unveiled the 64-dish radio telescope array in the remote and arid Karoo region of South Africa that offers prime conditions for astronomers. Named the MeerKAT, the 64 receptors are set to be integrated into a multi-nation Square Kilometre Array (SKA). (Photo by MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP)

Co-located primarily in South Africa and Australia, the SKA will be a collection of hundreds of thousands of radio antennas with a combined collecting area equivalent to approximately one million square metres, or one square kilometre.

The project is one of the largest scientific endeavours in history and will be more than 10 times more sensitive and much faster at surveying galaxies than any current radio telescope.

The next African phase of the SKA, the African Millimetre Telescope (AMT), to be located in Namibia is now in the pipeline.

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