Malaysian scientist part of team behind breakthrough image of black hole

Mr Kevin Koay Jun Yi, who became involved in the project after joining the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan at the end of 2016 as a post-doctoral fellow, said he was among a group of about 20 people to see the images
Mr Kevin Koay Jun Yi, who became involved in the project after joining the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan at the end of 2016 as a post-doctoral fellow, said he was among a group of about 20 people to see the images first.

In one of the most momentous breakthroughs in astronomy history, scientists revealed that they had captured the first-ever image of a black hole.

The image, which resembles a fiery ring of swirling gases, was captured using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) - a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration and designed to capture images of a black hole.

One of the scientists behind this ground-breaking achievement was Malaysian Kevin Koay Jun Yi, who became involved in the project after joining the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan at the end of 2016 as a post-doctoral fellow.

"I was invited to join the Greenland telescope and EHT group because of my background and previous experience in radio astronomy. Of course, this project was too exciting for me to turn down," he said in an e-mail interview.

According to him, the collaboration consisted of some 200 members internationally, and he was among a group of about 20 people who saw the images first.

"I was part of the observing team at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, on April 2017, when these observations were carried out," said the 37-year-old from Penang.

"I am also a part of the data processing and imaging teams, so was heavily involved in processing/ validating/checking the data and turning them into the images."

Announced on Wednesday in a series of six papers published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster.

This black hole resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun.

"We have taken the first picture of a black hole," EHT project director Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard and Smithsonian's Centre for Astrophysics said in a media statement. "This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers."

Creating the EHT was a formidable challenge that required upgrading and connecting a worldwide network of eight pre-existing telescopes deployed at a variety of challenging high-altitude sites, including volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Chilean Atacama Desert, as well as Antarctica.

An Associated Press report said the project cost US$50 million (S$68 million) to US$60 million.

Mr Koay is now actively involved in the commissioning and observing activities at a newly constructed telescope in the Arctic which joined the EHT global array of telescopes early last year.

He reckons that the black hole image is merely the first step in heralding a new era in black hole studies.

"There is much more to learn and much to improve, like the inclusion of new telescopes to achieve better image quality," he said.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2019, with the headline 'Malaysian scientist part of team behind breakthrough'. Print Edition | Subscribe