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5 Questions You Might Have About Black Holes

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Written by   6
1 year ago

A black hole is an extremely dense object in space from which no light can escape. While black holes are mysterious and exotic, they are also a key consequence of how gravity works: When a lot of mass gets compressed into a small enough space, the resulting object rips the very fabric of space and time, becoming what is called a singularity. A black hole's gravity is so powerful that it will be able to pull in nearby material and "eat" it.

1. How can we learn about black holes if they trap light, and can't actually be seen?

No light of any kind, including X-rays, can escape from inside the event horizon of a black hole, the region beyond which there is no return. NASA's telescopes that study black holes are looking at the surrounding environments of the black holes, where there is material very close to the event horizon. Matter is heated to millions of degrees as it is pulled toward the black hole, so it glows in X-rays. The immense gravity of black holes also distorts space itself, so it is possible to see the influence of an invisible gravitational pull on stars and other objects.

2. How long does it take to make a black hole?

A stellar-mass black hole, with a mass of tens of times the mass of the Sun, can likely form in seconds, after the collapse of a massive star. These relatively small black holes can also be made through the merger of two dense stellar remnants called neutron stars. A neutron star can also merge with a black hole to make a bigger black hole, or two black holes can collide. Mergers like these also make black holes quickly, and produce ripples in space-time called gravitational waves.

More mysterious are the giant black holes found at the centers of galaxies — the "supermassive" black holes, which can weigh millions or billions of times the mass of the Sun. It can take less than a billion years for one to reach a very large size, but it is unknown how long it takes them to form, generally.

3. How do scientists calculate the mass of a supermassive black hole?

The research involves looking at the motions of stars in the centers of galaxies. These motions imply a dark, massive body whose mass can be computed from the speeds of the stars. The matter that falls into a black hole adds to the mass of the black hole. Its gravity doesn't disappear from the universe.

4. Is it possible for a black hole to "eat" an entire galaxy?

No. There is no way a black hole would eat an entire galaxy. The gravitational reach of supermassive black holes contained in the middle of galaxies is large, but not nearly large enough for eating the whole galaxy.

5. What would happen if you fell into a black hole?

It certainly wouldn't be good! But what we know about the interior of black holes comes from Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

For black holes, distant observers will only see regions outside the event horizon, but individual observers falling into the black hole would experience quite another "reality." If you got into the event horizon, your perception of space and time would entirely change. At the same time, the immense gravity of the black hole would compress you horizontally and stretch you vertically like a noodle, which is why scientists call this phenomenon (no joke) "spaghettification."

Fortunately, this has never happened to anyone — black holes are too far away to pull in any matter from our solar system. But scientists have observed black holes ripping stars apart, a process that releases a tremendous amount of energy.

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