Black Holes: Kings Of The Universe

Black holes have been the celebrity of astronomy since Einstein and friends first thought of their existence in the early 1900s. A century later, NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has reported that it captured an “extreme and rare event” in the neighborhood of a super-massive black hole.

Michael Parker, who headed the group of Cambridge astronomers explains the discovery:

The corona recently collapsed in toward the black hole, with the result that the black hole’s intense gravity pulled all the light down onto its surrounding disk, where material is spiraling inward.

This particular black hole is named Markarian 335 (Mrk 335 to friends). Like many black holes, Mrk 335 has a long-distance relationship with Earthlings–living some 324 million light years from Earth, just yonder from the Pegasus constellation. Which is a nice distance for a black hole, since their gravitational fields are so strong that not even light escapes, something known as an event horizon.

Because black holes suck in light (or electromagnetic radiation, generally) and because we can only look for black holes based on light-detecting telescopes (still working on warp drive), scientists figure out where black holes are and what they’re like by the effects they have on stuff around them–like a collapsing corona. Fiona Harrison of California Institute of Technology explains:

We still don’t understand exactly how the corona is produced or why it changes its shape, but we see it lighting up material around the black hole, enabling us to study the regions so close in that effects described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity become prominent. [more details in original article]

Black holes are totally awesome, real kings of the universe. So awesome, it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around it. Black holes are thought to result from a dying supergiant star and become extremely dense as its mass collapses in on itself. We’re used to dense stuff being things like a dumbbells–but, according to one scientist at the University of Chicago, a black hole’s density is “over a hundred trillion times the density of water; at that density, all the people on Earth could be fit into a teaspoon!” By another estimation, “neutron stars (which are less dense than black holes) are so dense that if you could dip a teaspoon into one of them and scoop out some of its neutrons the spoon would weigh 100 million tons.”…tons and tons!

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As far as black holes go, Mrk 335 is pretty big–about 10 million times the mass of our sun squeezed into a region only 30 times the sun’s diameter. Mrk 335 is also pretty nimble for a black hole, spinning so fast that space and time are gravitationally dragged around it.

TIME reports that there are also “intermediate-size” black holes, like Mrk 335’s black hole buddy, Messier 82 (goes by M82 X-1). This black hole weighs in at only 400 times the mass of our sun, but still packing unimaginable amount of mass into a tiny space.

Black holes are so far from our everyday experience of density that our brains have trouble conceptualizing them. Our brains evolved to do stuff like walk, eat, speak and flirt–understanding black holes is a bit beyond our natural ability. So astronomers that study black holes have developed mathematical models to understand them. One such black hole astronomer is Richard Mushotzky of the University of Maryland who, when asked how he studies M82 X-1, replied “It’s kind of complicated. You don’t really want to know.” Oh well, black holes are still pretty cool.

[ Photo courtesy of: NASA]