Outer space may be one infinite void of whoa, but black holes are in an entirely different class of crazy — swirling messes of mystery and horror so colossally complex and misunderstood, the mere concept of them has stumped some of the world’s greatest scientists. So, to help clear up any misconceptions about these light-eating orbs lurking in the most distant corners of our universe, here are some mind-bending facts you may not have known.
We know they exist, even though we’ve never seen them
Like that mysterious jerk neighbor who always steals your morning paper, we know black holes are out there, but we can’t actually see them. There is enough indirect evidence that we can see to prove their existence, like the fact that some stars and entire galaxies appear to be rapidly orbiting around exceptionally dense, ghost-like entities. The matter that’s being drawn into those same voids emits an especially bright light that can be detected by special X-ray space telescopes.
They aren’t holes at all
Despite the name, black holes are actually spheres. True, they’re “black” and everything that gets too close to them falls in — but it doesn’t just fall through some invisible plane chilling out there in space and into oblivion. The easiest way to think of a black hole is as the byproduct of a massive star perpetually collapsing into itself, with a finite center point (aka the singularity) that feeds on any matter or light. When matter gets sucked in, it’s falling into a globe of finite size with an ever-increasing mass at its center.
Fleeing from one is impossible
Even if you were to carefully approach the precipice of a black hole without getting sucked in and dying, you would still be screwed, because of the zone just beyond its edges, known as the ergosphere. As a black hole spins (which it does, and fast), it’s so strong that the area around it spins with it. That means that no matter how hard you try to spin in the other direction, or away from it, you’re still a goner.
They come in a bunch of different sizes
It’s generally accepted that there are three types of black holes. The most common are stellar black holes, which form when a massive star collapses. Then there are supermassive black holes, whose masses are up to 44 billion times that of our sun’s, and they typically exist at the center of galaxies. Then there are miniature black holes, which are relatively tiny ones (as small 22 micrograms) that may have been created shortly after the Big Bang, caused by the rapid expansion of some matter and the subsequent compression of slower-moving matter caught in its wake.
If you were sucked inside, you would be “spaghettified”
Obviously no one has ever been inside a black hole so we can’t say for certain what crazy shit goes on in there, but it’s safe to say you wouldn’t like it one bit. For one, the tidal force (or the effect of the incredibly strong gravity inside) would be so powerful that your limbs closest to the event horizon would violently elongate like limp noodles the instant you were sucked inside — a process known by the scientific term “spaghettification.” Sorry Interstellar fans, but surviving a trip through a black hole just ain’t gonna happen.
The sun is too small to ever become a black hole
So if black holes form with stars explode, will our sun eventually turn into one? Compared to you and I, the sun is mind-numbingly enormous (about 1.3 million Earths could fit inside it). But its mass is minuscule compared to most stars in the universe, and is actually too small to create a stellar black hole when it dies in roughly 4 billion years. Instead, it’ll become a white dwarf. Which sounds like a much nicer fate, anyway.
Sometimes, pairs of giant black holes eat each other
Were you paying attention last month when scientists giddily announced the existence of gravitational waves? That was a huge deal, not only because it confirmed that the scientific principles we’ve relied on for the last century are correct, but it proved that black holes billions of miles away do in fact collide occasionally, sending a space-time ripple through the universe. Trippy, huh?
They erase light, but also create the brightest light in the universe
Yes, it’s true that black holes have so much mass that they absorb even light, but they are also capable of producing the most luminous objects in the universe, called quasars. This happens when a cloud of gas and matter furiously spins around and into a black hole, heating up to blindingly bright temperatures.
Scientists could, in theory, create one right now on Earth
Remember the doomsayers — including Stephen Hawking — who warned that turning on the Large Hadron Collider had the potential to destroy the universe by creating a black hole on Earth? Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t cash out your 401k early in response, since much of the scare-mongering was just that. However, there is some truth to it all, since under very specific (and very unlikely) circumstances, it has the potential to maybe, definitely do us all in. But probably not.
We’re circling one right now
As I mentioned earlier, supermassive black holes are generally found at the center of galaxies (and are suspected to be the reason for many galaxies’ spiral shape). Guess what? That includes our own galaxy. The black hole Sagittarius A*, which sits at the center of the Milky Way, is estimated to be a whopping 4.5 million times the mass of our sun.