Finding and Leaping into Black Holes

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  • 0:35 Finding a Black Hole
  • 3:38 Leaping into a Black Hole
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you fell into a black hole? Is it a good idea to use it for time travel? And what would your friends see as you fell in? Using this lesson on finding one might reveal it's not such a good idea. Or is it?

Jumping into a Hole

What happens when you jump into a deep black hole in the ground? You disappear. That's what. At least to the observer watching from the top. Of course you, poor thing, would keep falling, eventually hit the bottom and would probably have a massive headache as the best-case scenario.

What happens when you jump into a black hole out in space? You don't disappear. That's what. At least to the observer watching from afar. Of course you, poor thing, would keep falling and would be… well, let's just save that for the rest of this lesson, shall we?

Finding a Black Hole

One of the biggest questions is: do black holes even exist? Is there anything to fall into?

Well, as other lessons on black holes have already made clear, a black hole by itself is invisible to us from afar. You cannot see it because it doesn't release any information to an observer in the form of any radiation, including the range of electromagnetic radiation that contains visible light.

Clearly, that poses a problem when it comes down to finding an actual black hole.

But we can find a black hole somewhat indirectly. Let me paint a picture for you first to make it easier to understand what astronomers have found.

If you go and fill up a bathtub with water and remove the plug to the drain, you'll see that the hole opening up into the drain is dark and you can't see inside of it. In a way, we can pretend the drain is an invisible object, like a black hole in space.

But when you do this, note how water starts to swirl in a disk around the drain before it disappears into the black hole. That tells us something is there, something has to be pulling that matter, the water, inwards and making it disappear.

Out in space, something similar happens. If matter flows into a black hole, it will swirl in a disk first, before plunging in, like our water eventually plunges into the drain. The disk of matter whirling around a black hole is called an accretion disk.

Normally, a black hole out in space by its lonesome self doesn't have enough matter flowing into it to clue us into its presence. But the exact opposite is true in a binary system, a system where two objects, like a black hole and a star, orbit around a common center of mass.

Check out the cool animation on your screen to see what I mean.

Black holes are visible when accompanied by accretion disks
Frame shot of black hole and accretion disk

I'm sure you can appreciate this disk, the accretion disk, swirling around what would otherwise be a completely invisible black hole. Had matter not been taken in from the nearby star, as per this binary system, the black hole would be invisible.

But now, because the black hole is having matter transferred over from a neighboring star, we can see it indirectly. In fact, as this matter swirls around the black hole, the inner parts of the accretion disk get very hot due to friction, hot enough for gases to emit X-rays in a flicker, which our satellites detect right before these gases plunge into the black hole. Furthermore, astronomers suspect that very powerful jets of gas and radiation are emitted from the accretion disk, likely due to the effects of strong magnetic fields.

X-rays can be emitted by other binary systems, like those involving neutron stars, but astronomers can calculate that the masses of the objects emitting some X-rays are too big for a neutron star. Meaning, it's a black hole that's releasing the X-rays.

Leaping into a Black Hole

Once these gases plunge in, they disappear from view and into oblivion. So what would happen if you were to jump into a black hole?

If you leapt into a an electrically neutral, non-rotating black hole, known as a Schwarzschild Black Hole, from a distance of about 1 astronomical unit, you would start your fall slowly at first but you'd travel faster as you neared its center.

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