After a long morning on a charity walk before spending the afternoon fixing up my backyard, I decided that I would share the evening with a movie and well deserved dinner. ‘Event Horizon’ looked interesting, indeed it had the beloved Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) as the main actor and certainly watching an action movie when your mind is incapable of processing anything can always work as a treat. But alas, the movie was rather tedious at best and I regretted not adhering to the temptation of re-watching Aliens with Sigourney Weaver who, admittingly, I have a huge girl-crush on. It would seem that the most mysterious in our universe tends to evoke the most interest, and indeed incredible levels of absurdity. The mystery of the existence of black holes is clearly one of them, from those who downright deny its existence to numerous suggestions about what happens to space and time when we enter a black hole that I felt compelled to ameliorate some details about black holes in this post and to hopefully reduce the likelihood of turning the science into a state of wild farcicality.
Stellar evolution is primarily about the mass and luminosity of stars that over time evolves until it reaches the end of its life cycle with millions of years passing during this process. Initially forming from the nuclear reactions or stellar ignition within a nebulae where gravity pulls the clouds of gas and dust into dense and hot ‘cores’ until the collapse reaches a nuclear fusion, the star is finally born and as the temperature during this fusion increases, it provides the energy that enables continuous emission of light or luminosity. Depending on the size, such as our own sun, the star will quietly settle on the Main Sequence for most of its life as thermonuclear fusion is enabled by the temperature (10mk) to thus burn hydrogen into helium until the former is completely depleted. To burn helium requires a greater temperature and this is enabled by the force of gravity following the end of nuclear fusion as it contracts and therefore becomes hotter that hydrogen burning is thus ignited as the outer layers expand to form into a red dwarf or giant. The helium nuclei fuse to convert into carbon and oxygen in this rather tumultuous and highly energetic process until helium has completely converted but if the size of the star is not large enough, the contraction at the core does not heat up to the high temperatures needed to burn carbon. The Chandrasekhar Limit is a limit of 1.4 solar masses that categorises the mass of white dwarfs, which are the final result of low mass stars that are held together through electron degeneracy pressure. The density and pressure is enough to prevent further gravitational collapse, however stellar remnants that exceeds this limit will continue to collapse further until it forms into a neutron star which, again, is held together by the neutron degeneracy pressure. To form a black hole, the force of gravity overwhelms the neutron degeneracy pressure and therefore there is nothing left in space that would prevent the continued collapse of the star and thus the continuous singularity where therein contains no volume and infinite density becomes a black hole.
So what would happen if we found ourselves falling into a black hole? The mathematical concept of escape velocity was the first introduction to the theoretical concept and force of a black hole by amateur astronomer Reverend John Mitchell in 1783, whereby equating the universal gravitational constant 6.67 × 10-11 N m2 kg-2 with the mass of the body creating the gravitational field and distance between the body and an object escaping the gravitational field – thus the gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy – one could calculate the required velocity an object would require in an attempt to escape the gravitational pull of the field it is near. Accordingly, the size and radius of this body would then mean that,“all light emitted from such a body would be made to return towards it” and therefore such density would mean that light could never escape. The boundary or radius of the region surrounding the black hole that would enable some form of ‘escape’ is called the event horizon and the distance between the black hole and the event horizon is called the Schwarzschild radius Rs which is calculated by the escape velocity as equal to the speed of light:
Whatever falls inside the event horizon will never escape. So what would happen if one passed the event horizon and fell into a black hole? A plethora of postulations have been made, one of them being time dilation, whereby the person travelling into the black hole would experience time as we know it, however outside of the black hole we would never be able to see her cross into the event horizon because time is much slower and what would be a few minutes for the person within could be thousands of years for the observer. That is, as one approaches the event horizon, gravitational redshift would make us see increases in speed of the moving object and anything with strong gravitational fields or compact objects causes an increase in the wavelength while at the same time decreasing the energy output. Spaghettification is yet another, where the tidal force of the gravity would stretch the object as it gets pulled in and the friction would cause it to heat to an incredible temperature.
Steven Hawking has recently purported that it is possible to travel to an alternate universe through a black hole; that is a black hole has ‘soft hair’ or extremely low energy quanta and what passes and event horizon does not disappear into oblivion but can actually come back out, only it will no longer be the same place. It is assumed that a black hole contains only several properties and the ‘no hair theorem’ first expressed by John Wheeler is that whatever falls beyond the event horizon is permanently inaccessible. The speculation is that the conservation of time within the black hole is caused by low-energy quantum excitations or ‘soft hair’ that when a black hole captures information by the material entering it, it also releases this information back out as it evaporates. But with time dilation, the information that is released is released perhaps into somewhere billions of years into the future or even a completely different universe. Hawking studied the emission of thermal energy or blackbody radiation (Hawking Radiation), which is indicative that quantum matter must be entering the black hole and that the source of its parameters would also eventually dissipate. According to quantum theory, this is caused by subatomic particles that exist for a moment as two separate (positive and negative) charged particles before reunited into one another and annihilating that momentary separation, as though their existence relies on the other in a perpetuity and these particle/anti-particles are present all over space. If they separate at the time of reaching a black hole, the positive would have the necessary charge to escape – effectively becoming the blackbody radiation that we observe – while the negative is doomed to fall in and as such the black hole will lose mass. This changes the classical conversation laws as the state of the particles changes at quantum level.
There are a number of methods currently being used to observe the existence of black holes, some indirectly particularly through binary systems – where a star is orbiting a black hole – and thus the emission of X-ray sources is stronger from the accretion disk’s spectrum, since it would imply that the star is orbiting a very dense object and thus a black hole. There are stellar black holes and then there are supermassive black holes, the latter containing millions and even a billion times more mass than its stellar counterpart. Supermassive black holes are said to be at the centre of our Milky Way and most large galaxies and observations of distant quasars that radiates incredible energy have enabled astronomers to conclude that the astounding levels of energy is only possible by a supermassive black hole. The formation of a supermassive black hole is unknown, though it is believed that the early stages of the universe assisted in their formation and as it consumed material over billions of years grew to its astounding size and power. It is also said that the supermassive black holes are the cause of active galactic nuclei that emit non-thermal energy such as quasars as well as galactic jets.
In 2014, NASA’ two telescopes detected an X-ray Flare from a supermassive black hole – Markarian 335 – that gave insight to astronomers about shifting coronas to an X-ray flare. The corona is a mysterious source of highly energetic particles or radiation found near the black hole accretion disk and they emit X-ray light, however details relating to their form and location of the black hole – since an event like a flare released near the event horizon would change our understanding of black holes including how fast it is spinning. There are two proposed suggestions of the position of the corona, with the first being Lamp Post Model where the corona is positioned on the axis above the rotating black hole, or the Sandwich Model where the corona is spread above and below the disc but the results suggest the former LP Model is likely. The disk around the black hole glows from the hot gas that is drawn around it and emits X-rays and as the material in the corona contracts as they are drawn closer together and the pressure launches the material out of the corona as it forms into a jet at ~20% speed of light. The brightness from the Doppler boosting or relativistic beaming where the concentration of superluminal motion of the jets remains somewhat mysterious.
The recent observation of the supermassive black hole Markarian 335 by NASA’ Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) as well as the Swift Gamma-Ray Telescope – Markarian 335 being 324 million light years away – observed a large pulse of X-ray energy following the release of the corona away from the black hole. The observation enabled scientists to understand that the flare involves a process of release, that is a high-speed “launch” of the corona directly from the Black Hole that then causes the flare itself. The accretion disk of the black hole is incredibly hot where materials such as gas and space dust that has not yet been absorbed by the black spin around the event horizon and produce a glow in ultraviolet light. There are some explanations of the X-ray signals that NASA has detected, suggesting that as the heat around the accretion disk from the material glows ultraviolet and scatter above the disk which is further illuminated by X-ray energy that reflects off the disk, but there is also the theory that clouds block the visualisation of the mouth of the black hole and that shapes the X-ray spectrum that the detectors obtain with recent observations from the Gemini South Telescope in Chile that was able to measure the motions of gas around a supermassive black hole and zoomed in 10x closer to the galaxy core of NGC1097 and detected gas clouds ten light years from the nucleus. While flares are still mysterious, astronomers are taking steps closer toward understanding them.