Helium Hard Drives Capturing The Supermassive Black Hole In The Centre Of The Galaxy

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HGST to deploy helium drives that function better than air-filled HDDs at high-altitude observatories to store data from the edge of a black hole

Western Digital’s HGST storage subsidiary has deployed what it claims to be the world’s first helium-filled hard disks to help scientists capture data from a supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

The black hole data will be collected as part of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, which sees 34 global observatories aim to create the first image of a black hole boundary – otherwise known as an event horizon.

EHT will use HGST’s hermetically sealed Ultrastar hard disk drives for the project as the helium-induced hardware has a higher capacity and lower consumption when compared to regular air-filled HDDs, said HGST.

Sagittarius A*

The project’s radio telescopes will be pointed at Sagittarius A*, a black hole with four million times the mass of the Sun. It’s 26,000 light years from Earth and according to NASA is one of very few black holes in the universe where the flow of matter nearby can actually be seen because of its proximity. The radio telescopes will then collect the data from radio waves given off from the event horizon.

“HGST’s contribution to the Event Horizon Telescope project has helped EHT accurately capture and store the massive amounts of data coming in from all the telescopes located around the globe,” said Shep Doeleman, professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who directs the Event Horizon Telescope project.

It was last year when HGST announced that it will end production of traditional air-filled hard drives, and only continue forward with HDDs filled with helium.

As helium is a lighter gas than air, speed and density of hard drives are increased because less drag is produced by moving parts. Density can also be increased, making it possible to put more platters into the HDD, further increasing the weight-to-data ratio.

black hole
A black hole’s accretion disk as portrayed in the 2014 film ‘Interstellar’

Directly observing the immediate environment of a black hole is one of the long standing goals in astrophysics, according to EHT project. Realising the goal would “open a new window” on the study of general relativity “in the strong field regime, accretion and outflow processes at the edge of a black hole, the existence of an event horizon, and fundamental black hole physics”.

Doeleman said that using helium drives was “the only way” to make sure that the event horizon data could be captured in remote observatories such as a high-altitude location in Mexico, as air-filled drives would have failed.

“Additionally, the high capacity of each drive ensured that we were able to build denser and fewer enclosures overall,” said Doeleman.

Doeleman will be discussing the EHT project via a Reddit AMA on Wednesday, August 26 at 2:00pm EDT.

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