Gravity 8: Black Holes in the Cosmos

by Shane L. Larson

When I give talks about black holes, I usually lead with a question for the crowd: “You’ve all heard about black holes. What do you know about them?”  The responses are varied, but can be succinctly summarized as this: black holes mess things up!

This little chat captures the essential truth about black holes: if you fall inside, you are without question doomed.  That notion is a bit horrifying, and one of the reasons why these enigmatic objects are so fascinating to us — there exist objects in the Cosmos that have the ability to utterly destroy anything. No amount of human ingenuity or heroics by Bruce Willis can ever spare your fate if you fall down the throat of a black hole.

People’s intuitions are all (more or less) based on solid science, and can help us understand how astronomers find and study black holes. One of the classic thought experiments is often posited to me as a question: what would happen to Earth if you replaced the Sun with a black hole (of equal mass)?  The answer is simple: absolutely nothing!

Oh sure, 8 minutes after the transformation it would get dark on Earth because there would be no more sunlight, and eventually Earth would turn into a snowball and all life as we know it would die. But in terms of the orbit nothing would change! The Earth would continue to happily speed along its appointed path, obeying Kepler’s laws of orbital motion, with nary a concern that it is orbiting a black hole instead of a friendly star. Far from a black hole, the gravity is not extreme at all.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but as is often the case in the Cosmos, the most innocuous of ideas are often hiding a deeper, more profound notion, if you open your mind to it. This is the case here.

A binary star is a pair of stars that orbit one another, just like a planet orbits our Sun. They are often roughly the same mass, so they both move around a common center that astronomers call the "center of mass." The stars more or less continue with their lives as if they lived alone, but if they are close enough together their interactions can have profound consequences for their evolution.

A binary star is a pair of stars that orbit one another, just like a planet orbits our Sun. They are often roughly the same mass, so they both move around a common center that astronomers call the “center of mass.” The stars more or less continue with their lives as if they lived alone, but if they are close enough together their interactions can have profound consequences for their evolution.

We know that a large fraction of stars in the galaxy are actually binary stars — two stars mutually orbiting one another the way planets orbit the Sun. So what would happen if we replaced one star in a binary with a black hole? This is eminently reasonable because we think black holes are one of the possible skeletons of dead stars.

In terms of the binary orbit, if the star and it’s black hole companion are far apart, nothing would change! The star that remains a star would continue to happily speed along its appointed path, obeying Kepler’s laws of orbital motion, with nary a concern that it is orbiting a black hole instead of the friendly star that was once its gravitational partner in the Cosmos.

Even though the orbit of the companion star is not dramatically affected by the presence of a black hole, there is an important consequence for astronomers: if they are watching this star system they will see the single star apparently orbiting … nothing! The star will continue to trace out its orbital path, appearing in our telescopes to wobble back and forth for no discernible reason.  This is something we have looked for, and it is something we have found!

Cygnus, the Swan, is a constellation in the northern sky. Three bright stars (Deneb in Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila) make up "The Summer Triangle." The black hole system, Cygnus X-1, lies near the center of the Triangle, in the neck of Cygnus.

Cygnus, the Swan, is a constellation in the northern sky. Three bright stars (Deneb in Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila) make up “The Summer Triangle.” The black hole system, Cygnus X-1, lies near the center of the Triangle, in the neck of Cygnus.

In the northern sky, the Milky Way can be seen high in the sky on clear summer evenings. Prominent along the faint, diaphanous band is the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, flying south along the great river of the galaxy. In the neck of Cygnus, near the naked eye star Eta Cygni, astronomers have found a bright blue-supergiant known as V1357 Cygni (also known as HD 226868 — there are a lot of stars, so astronomer names for them are not always the most pleasing for idle conversation!). It is bright enough to see in a telescope from your backyard, but there is little else you or I can discern. But in 1964, astronomers flew an x-ray detector on a rocket to the edge of space, and discovered this star is one of the strongest sources of x-rays in the sky. We now call it Cygnus X-1.  Since then, astronomers have watched this star closely, and note that ever so slightly it is wobbling back and forth once every 5.6 days, suggesting its unseen companion is about 14.8 times the mass of our Sun; the orbit between the two is about half the size of Mercury’s orbit.

An artist's impression of Cygnus X-1. The strong stellar wind blowing off the supergiant is captured by the black hole and pulled down to form an accretion disk. [ESA/Hubble image]

An artist’s impression of Cygnus X-1. The strong stellar wind blowing off the supergiant is captured by the black hole and pulled down to form an accretion disk. [ESA/Hubble image]

But what about the x-rays? Ordinary binary stars don’t spew off as many x-rays as Cygnus X-1. What gives? This is another clue pointing toward the companion being a black hole. The blue supergiant blows off a strong stellar wind, much like the solar wind from our own Sun, but stronger. That material is captured by the gravitational pull of the companion and pulled down onto a turbulent maelstrom of material called an accretion disk. The accretion disk swirls just above the black hole, and is subject to intense gravity. Heuristically, the picture is this: the intense gravity makes the gas move very fast. When gas moves fast, it gets hot. When gas gets hot, it emits light. The faster it moves, the hotter it gets, and the more energetic the light. X-rays are very energetic, so the gas must be moving very fast. Why? The extreme gravity of a black hole.

So black holes can do crazy stuff to gas that streams down close to them. But what will the extreme gravity do to a solid object that gets too close? Imagine you (unwisely) decide to jump into a black hole; not being much of a diver, you jump in feet first. As expected, far from the black hole you don’t notice anything; the gravitational field looks perfectly normal, like any Newtonian gravitational field. Space and time are only distorted and stretched by noticeable amounts when you get close.

Tidal forces are a difference in the strength of gravity across your body. In the extreme gravity near a black hole, the side closest to the black hole is pulled on more strongly than the far side. As  you get closer and closer to the black hole the effect is to stretch you out ("spaghettify" you) until you are pulled apart ("tidally disrupted").

Tidal forces are a difference in the strength of gravity across your body. In the extreme gravity near a black hole, the side closest to the black hole is pulled on more strongly than the far side. As you get closer and closer to the black hole the effect is to stretch you out (“spaghettify” you) until you are pulled apart (“tidally disrupted”).

As you get closer, the strength of gravity increases — general relativity tells us the curvature, the warpage of spacetime is increasing. As you approach, the black hole pulls more strongly on your feet than your head. As you get closer and closer, this difference in force (what your physicist friends call a “tidal force”) can become quite strong! The net result — it stretches you out — provided you can withstand the strain, you’ll stay together, but get longer, like a rubber band.

Stephen Hawking has dubbed this effect “spaghettification” — the turning of you into a long piece of spaghetti. It is more extreme if your head is farther from your feet — short people have a better survival probability than tall people!  If you really want to survive the dive into a black hole, your best choice is to belly flop or cannonball — both greatly reduce the distance between the side of you close to the black hole, and the side of you farther from the black hole.

Astronomers observe tidal disruption flares. Here is an artists conception (top) and telescope observations (bottom) of a star being tidally disrupted by a 100 million solar mass black hole in galaxy RXJ1242 in 2004. [NASA]

Astronomers observe tidal disruption flares. Here is an artists conception (top) and telescope observations (bottom) of a star being tidally disrupted by a 100 million solar mass black hole in galaxy RXJ1242 in 2004. [NASA]

Imagine now it wasn’t you diving into a black hole, but a star.  The exact same effects occur. Imagine a star falling toward a black hole. As it closes the distance, the strength of gravity grows inexorably stronger. The side of the star closest to the black hole feels the tug of the black hole more strongly than the far side. Despite the fact that it’s own self-gravity is strong enough to keep it together, as the influence of the black hole grows, it begins to overcome the self-identity of the star, and distorts it into a oblong caricature of its former self.  If the star strays too close, the black hole’s gravity will overcome the star’s gravity, and tear it apart. The star will be tidally disrupted.

When this happens, the guts of the star are violently exposed in an energetic event called a tidal disruption flare. Generally, the remains of the star, now a seething, turbulent cloud of gaseous debris, collapses down toward the black hole, forming an accretion disk that heats up and, for a time, becomes very bright. Slowly, the gas falls down the throat of the black hole, vanishing forever, and all evidence of the star is erased.

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

Two decades of observations have shown the orbits around the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. [NCSA/UCLA/Keck]

So what are these black holes that eat stars? They are the great monsters of the Cosmos. Lurking at the centers of spiral galaxies, like Charybdis in the Straits of Messina, these “supermassive black holes” have grown on a steady diet of stars and gas to enormous sizes. Our own Milky Way harbors a massive black hole that is 4 million times heavier than the Sun; even though it is millions of times more massive, the horizon is only about 17 solar radii across. But the consequences of its existence are profound. For the last two decades or so, astronomers have been watching a small cluster of stars in the center of the galaxy. We’ve been watching them long enough now, that they have traced out significant pieces of their orbits, and in some cases completed an entire orbit, allowing us to measure the mass of the black hole.

Despite being 4 million times more massive than our Sun, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way has an event horizon diameter only 17x larger than the Sun's diameter!

Despite being 4 million times more massive than our Sun, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way has an event horizon diameter only 17x larger than the Sun’s diameter!

Astronomers have looked for and found supermassive black holes in many other galaxies. In the course of those observations, we have discovered a tantalizing and interesting connection between galaxies and the massive black holes they host. Galaxies often have a part of them astronomers call “the bulge.” In the Milky Way, and other spiral type galaxies, the bulge is the large spherical bubble of stars that sits over the center of the galaxy. Some galaxies, like elliptical galaxies, are “all bulge.”  Astronomers have discovered an interesting relationship: the bigger a bulge, the bigger the black hole that lies at the center of it.

The black hole in the center of M87 powers an enormous, energetic jet of material spewing out from the galactic core. (L) I was one of the first amateurs image this jet in 2001. (R) HST image of the jet, for comparison. :-)

The black hole in the center of M87 powers an enormous, energetic jet of material spewing out from the galactic core. (L) I was one of the first amateurs image this jet in 2001. (R) HST image of the jet, for comparison. 🙂

An example of galaxies that are “all bulge” are ellipticals, like M87 in Virgo. M87 has a 2 BILLION solar mass black hole in its core that has launched an enormous jet that shoots out of the galaxy, extending nearly 5000 light years out from the core. No one knows exactly how black holes launch jets, but the best observations and models lead astronomers to believe that a spinning black hole can twist up magnetic fields into galactic sized magnetic tornadoes. Hot gas is very easy to convince to follow strong magnetic fields, and as it plummets toward the black hole, some of it is redirected up the jets.

But even among galaxies, some black holes are larger than others. In the northern sky, just below the Big Dipper is a smattering of faint stars known as Coma Berenices — “Bernice’s Hair.”  The stars of Coma Berenices are in our own Milky Way galaxy, but behind them, across 320 million lightyears of the void, lies the Coma Cluster of galaxies. A group of about 1000 galaxies, the center of the cluster is ruled by two super-giant elliptical galaxies known as NGC 4874 and NGC 4889 (both of which can be seen with backyard telescopes; NGC 4889 is easier than NGC 4874!). Both show strong evidence for massive central black holes, including enormous jets emanating from the centers. But astronomers have attempted to mass the black hole in NGC 4889 and found the black hole could be as massive as 37 billion solar masses. If true, the event horizon would be 24 times larger than Neptune’s orbit. That size boggles the mind — a void of nothing, almost 25 times larger than the solar system; anything that goes in is lost. Forever.

Coma Berenices is a pretty splatter of stars beneath the Big Dipper (which is part of Ursa Major). The Coma Cluster of galaxies, and NGC 4889, lies 320 million lightyears behind the stars of Coma Berenices.

Coma Berenices is a pretty splatter of stars beneath the Big Dipper (which is part of Ursa Major). The Coma Cluster of galaxies, and NGC 4889, lies 320 million lightyears behind the stars of Coma Berenices.

The idea that black holes and galaxy bulges are related is a new one in astronomy, only having been proposed in 1999.  A diligent padawan of the Cosmos would ask the obvious question: if a galaxy has no bulge, does it then have no super-massive black hole? The answer may be “yes.” A classic example of this is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), right here in our own Local Group. A beautiful, classic spiral galaxy, M33 is only marginally tipped to our line of sight and can be easily seen and studied with a backyard telescope. Curiously, M33 has no bulge; so far, no massive black hole has been found.

M33, the Great Galaxy in Triangulum. There is almost no bulge surrounding the bright core seen here; astronomers have yet to find any evidence of a supermassive black hole there.

M33, the Great Galaxy in Triangulum. There is almost no bulge surrounding the bright core seen here; astronomers have yet to find any evidence of a supermassive black hole there.

And so the search continues. The number of galaxies for which we know the bulge-black hole relation works is still small — we have seen enough to understand the implications and possibility, but we still haven’t seen so many that we are confident stating, without equivocation, that “all bulgy galaxies have black holes.” Time and diligent observations of new galaxies will help resolve this question.

The fact that you and I can have conversations like this about black holes, dealing with what astronomers see and not (too much) about what we speculate is a mark of how far astronomy has come. When general relativity was first penned, black holes started as a curious, if somewhat suspect mathematical solution to the equations of gravity. Repeated, careful observations of the Cosmos have, however, led astronomers to the inescapable conclusion that black holes do in fact exist. They are part of our understanding of the machinery of the Universe. Now, the questions are different than what they were a century ago. Instead of asking “do they exist?” and “are they real?” we instead noodle our brains on the questions of “how many are there?” and “how big are they?” and “what are they doing to the Cosmos around them?

And a lot of us still wonder, “what would happen if I jump in one?

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This post is part of an ongoing series written for the General Relativity Centennial, celebrating 100 years of gravity (1915-2015).  You can find the first post in the series, with links to the successive posts in this series here: http://wp.me/p19G0g-ru.

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One response to “Gravity 8: Black Holes in the Cosmos

  1. Lovely……as long as one avoids being anywhere near a black hole, one is safe and sound. However, the ‘softer ones’ are difficult to avoid. In companies, we meet bosses who become black holes for quite a few bright ideas of their team members. In societies, we come across attitudes which gobble up quite a few good things, etc, etc.

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