How Far Away is Fusion? Unlocking the Power of the Sun

Best Energy?


I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.

Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.

What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.

Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?

Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. When life appeared on Earth, the Sun would have been much different than it is now; a more intense, energetic neighbor. Image: NASA/SDO.
Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. Credit: NASA/SDO.

The trick to the Sun’s ability to generate power through nuclear fusion, of course, comes from its enormous mass. The Sun contains 1.989 x 10^30 kilograms of mostly hydrogen and helium, and this mass pushes inward, creating a core heated to 15 million degrees C, with 150 times the density of water.

It’s at this core that the Sun does its work, mashing atoms of hydrogen into helium. This process of fusion is an exothermic reaction, which means that every time a new atom of helium is created, photons in the form of gamma radiation are also released.

The only thing the Sun uses this energy for is light pressure, to counteract the gravity pulling everything inward. Its photons slowly make their way up through the Sun and then they’re released into space. So wasteful.

How can we replicate this on Earth?

Now gathering together a Sun’s mass of hydrogen here on Earth is one option, but it’s really impractical. Where would we put all that hydrogen. The better solution will be to use our technology to simulate the conditions at the core of the Sun.

If we can make a fusion reactor where the temperatures and pressures are high enough for atoms of hydrogen to merge into helium, we can harness those sweet sweet photons of gamma radiation.

Tokamak
Inside a Tokamak. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

The main technology developed to do this is called a tokamak reactor; it’s a based on a Russian acronym for: “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”, and the first prototypes were created in the 1960s. There are many different reactors in development, but the method is essentially the same.

A vacuum chamber is filled with hydrogen fuel. Then an enormous amount of electricity is run through the chamber, heating up the hydrogen into a plasma state. They might also use lasers and other methods to get the plasma up to 150 to 300 million degrees Celsius (10 to 20 times hotter than the Sun’s core).

Superconducting magnets surround the fusion chamber, containing the plasma and keeping it away from the chamber walls, which would melt otherwise.

Once the temperatures and pressures are high enough, atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium just like in the Sun. This releases photons which heat up the plasma, keeping the reaction going without any addition energy input.

Excess heat reaches the chamber walls, and can be extracted to do work.

The spherical tokamak MAST at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Photo: CCFE

The challenge has always been that heating up the chamber and constraining the plasma uses up more energy than gets produced in the reactor. We can make fusion work, we just haven’t been able to extract surplus energy from the system… yet.

Compared to other forms of energy production, fusion should be clean and safe. The fuel source is water, and the byproduct is helium (which the world is actually starting to run out of). If there’s a problem with the reactor, it would cool down and the fusion reaction would stop.

The high energy photons released in the fusion reaction will be a problem, however. They’ll stream into the surrounding fusion reactor and make the whole thing radioactive. The fusion chamber will be deadly for about 50 years, but its rapid half-life will make it as radioactive as coal ash after 500 years.

External view of Princeton’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor which operated from 1982 to 1997. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (CC BY 3.0)

Now you know what fusion power is and how it works, what’s the current state, and how long until fusion plants give us unlimited cheap safe power, if ever?

Fusion experiments are measured by the amount of energy they produce compared to the amount of energy you put into them. For example, if a fusion plant required 100MW of electrical energy to produce 10 MW of output, it would have an energy ratio of 0.1. You want at least a ratio of 1. That means energy in equals energy out, and so far, no experiment has ever reached that ratio. But we’re close.

The EAST facility’s tokamak reactor, part of the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei. Credit: ipp.cas.cn

The Chinese are building the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST. In 2016, engineers reported that they had run the facility for 102 seconds, achieving temperatures of 50 million C. If true, this is an enormous advancement, and puts China ahead in the race to create stable fusion. That said, this hasn’t been independently verified, and they only published a single scientific paper on the milestone.

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator. Credit: Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, Tino Schulz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany recently announced that their Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator (I love that name), heated hydrogen gas to 80 million C for only a quarter of a second. Hot but short. A stellarator works differently than a tokamak. It uses twisted rings and external magnets to confine the plasma, so it’s good to know we have more options.

The biggest, most elaborate fusion experiment going on in the world right now is in Europe, at the French research center of Cadarache. It’s called ITER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, and it hopes to cross that magic ratio.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor. Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes

ITER is enormous, measuring 30 meters across and high. And its fusion chamber is so large that it should be able to create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The energy released by the fusing hydrogen keeps the fuel hot enough to keep reacting. There will still be energy required to run the electric magnets that contain the plasma, but not to keep the plasma hot.

And if all goes well, ITER will have a ratio of 10. In other words, for every 10 MW of energy pumped in, it’ll generate 100 MW of usable power.

ITER is still under construction, and as of June 2015, the total construction costs had reached $14 billion. The facility is expected to be complete by 2021, and the first fusion tests will begin in 2025.

So, if ITER works as planned, we are now about 8 years away from positive energy output from fusion. Of course, ITER will just be an experiment, not an actual powerplant, so if it even works, an actual fusion-based energy grid will be decades after that.

At this point, I’d say we’re about a decade away from someone demonstrating that a self-sustaining fusion reaction that generates more power than it consumes is feasible. And then probably another 2 decades away from them supplying electricity to the power grid. By that point, our smug Sun will need to find a new job.

What Are Fossil Fuels?

The term “fossil fuels” is thrown about quite a lot these days. More often than not, it comes up in the context of environmental issues, Climate Change, or the so-called “energy crisis”. In addition to be a major source of pollution, humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels has led to a fair bit of anxiety in recent decades, and fueled demands for alternatives.

But just what are fossil fuels? While most people tend to think of gasoline and oil when they hear these words, it actually applies to many different kinds of energy sources that are derived from decomposed organic material. How humanity came to be so dependent on them, and what can we look to in order to replace them, are some of the biggest concerns facing us today.

Definition:

Fossil fuels refers to energy sources that are formed as a result of the anaerobic decomposition of living matter that contains energy as a result of ancient photosynthesis. Typically, these organisms have been dead for millions of years, with some dating back as far as the Cryogenian Period (ca. 650 million years ago).

The Bryan Mound Strategic Petroleum Reserve, located in Brazoria Country, Texas. Credit: energy.gov

Fossil fuels contain high percentages of carbon and stored energy in their chemical bonds. They can take the form of petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other combustible, hydrocarbon compounds. Whereas petroleum and natural gas are formed by the decomposition of organisms, coal and methane are the results of the decomposition of terrestrial plants.

In the case of the former, it is believed that large quantities of phytoplankton and zooplankton settled on the bottoms of seas or lakes millions of years ago. Over the course of many millions of years, this organic matter mixed with mud and was buried under heavy layers of sediment. The resulting heat and pressure caused the organic matter to become chemically altered, eventually forming carbon compounds.

In the case of the latter, the source was dead plant matter that was covered in sediment during the Carboniferous period – i.e. the end of Devonian Period to the beginning of the Permian Period (ca. 300 and 350 million years ago). Over time, these deposits either solidified or became gaseous, creating coal fields, methane and natural gases.

Modern Uses:

Coal has been used since ancient times as a fuel, often in furnaces to melt metal ores. Unprocessed and unrefined oil has also been burned for centuries in lamps for the sake of lighting, and semi-solid hydrocarbons (like tar) were used for waterproofing (largely on the bottoms of boats and on docks) and for embalming.

Widespread use of fossil fuels as sources of energy began during the Industrial Revolution (18th – 19th century), where coal and oil began replacing animal sources (i.e. whale oil) to power steam engines. By the time of the Second Industrial Revolution (ca. 1870 – 1914), oil and coal began to be used to power electrical generators.

The invention of the internal combustion engine (i.e. automobiles) increased demands for oil exponentially, as did the development of aircraft. The petrochemical industry emerged concurrently, with petroleum being used to manufacture products ranging from plastics to feedstock. In addition, tar (a leftover product from petroleum extraction) became widely used in the construction of roads and highways.

Fossil fuels became central to modern manufacturing, industry and transportation because of how they produce significant amounts of energy per unit mass. As of 2015, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the world’s energy needs are still predominantly provided for by sources like coal (41.3%) and natural gas (21.7%), though oil has dropped to just 4.4%.

The fossil fuel industry also accounts for a major share of the global economy. In 2014, global coal consumption exceeded 3.8 billion metric tons, and accounted for US $46 billion in revenue in the US alone. In 2012, global oil and gas production reached over 75 million barrels per day, while the global revenue generated by the industry reached about US $1.247 trillion.

Countries of the world ranked in terms of their annual production of oil. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ali Zifan

The fossil fuel industry also enjoys a great deal of government protection and incentives worldwide. A 2014 report from the IEA indicated that the fossil fuel industry collects $550 billion a year in global government subsidies. However, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicated that the real cost of these subsidies to governments worldwide is around US $5.3 trillion (or 6.5 % of global GDP).

Environmental Effects:

The connection between fossil fuels and air pollution in industrialized nations and major cities has been evident since the Industrial Revolution. Pollutants generated by the burning of coal and oil include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, all of which have been linked to respiratory illnesses and increased risks of disease.

The burning of fossil fuels by humans is also the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide (about 90%) worldwide, which is one of the main greenhouse gases that allows radiative forcing (aka. the Greenhouse Effect) to take place, and contributes to global warming.

In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that CO² levels in the upper atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in the 19th century. Based on the current rate at which emissions are growing, NASA estimates that carbon levels could reach between 550 to 800 ppm in the coming century.

If the former scenario is the case, NASA anticipates a rise of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) in average global temperatures, which would be sustainable. However, should the latter scenario prove to be the case, global temperatures will rise by an average of 4.5 °C (8 °F), which would make life untenable for many parts of the planet. For this reason, alternatives are being sought out for development and widespread commercial adoption.

Alternatives:

Due to the long-term effects of fossil fuel-use, scientists and researchers have been developing alternatives for over a century. These include concepts like hydroelectric power – which has existed since the late 19th century – where falling water is used to spin turbines and generate electricity.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, nuclear power has also been looked to as an alternative to coal and petroleum. Here, slow-fission reactors (which rely on uranium or the radioactive decay of other heavy elements)  are used to heat water, which in turn generates steam to spin turbines.

Since the mid-2oth century, several more methods have been proposed that range from the simple to the highly sophisticated. These include wind power, where changes in airflow pushes turbines; solar power, where photovoltaic cells convert the Sun’s energy (and sometimes heat) into electricity; geothermal power, which relies on steam tapped from the Earth’s crust to rotate turbines; and tidal power, where changes in the tides push turbines.

The spherical tokamak MAST at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Photo: CCFE

Alternative fuels are also being derived from biological sources, where plant and biological sources are used to replace gasoline. Hydrogen is also being developed as a power source, ranging from hydrogen fuel cells to water being used to powering internal combustion and electric engines. Fusion power is also being developed, where atoms of hydrogen are fused inside reactors to generate clean, abundant energy.

By the middle of the 21st century, fossil fuels are expected to have become obsolete, or at least declined significantly in terms of their use. But from a historical standpoint, they have been associated with the largest and most prolonged explosions in human growth. Whether humanity will survive the long-term effects of this growth – which has included an intense amount of fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions – remains to be seen.

We have written many articles about fossil fuels for Universe Today. Here’s What is an Enhanced Greenhouse Effect?, Gases in the Atmosphere, What Causes Air Pollution?, What if We Burn Everything?, What is Alternative Energy?, and “Climate Change is Now More Certain Than Ever,” New Report Says

If you’d like more info on Fossil Fuels, check out NASA’s Earth Observatory. And here’s a link to NASA’s Article on Safeguarding our Atmosphere.

Astronomy Cast also has some episodes that are relevant to the subject. Here’s Episode 51: Earth and Episode 308: Climate Change.

Sources:

Astronomy Cast Ep. 391: Entropy

Have you ever been doing thermodynamics in a closed system and noticed that there’s a finite number of ways that things can be arranged, and they tend towards disorder? Of course you have, we all have. That’s entropy. And here in our Universe, entropy is on the rise. Let’s learn about entropy in its specific, thermodynamic ways, and then figure out what this means for the future of the Universe.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 391: Entropy”

Is the Universe Dying?

Is our 13.8 billion year old universe actually in its death throes?

Poor Universe, its demise announced right in it’s prime. At only 13.8 billion years old, when you peer across the multiverse it’s barely middle age. And yet, it sadly dwindles here in hospice.

Is it a Galactus infestation? The Unicronabetes? Time to let go, move on and find a new Universe, because this one is all but dead and gone and but a shell of its former self.

The news of imminent demise was recently broadcast in mid 2015. Based on research looking at the light coming from over 200,000 galaxies, they found that the galaxies are putting out half as much light as they were 2 billion years ago. So if our math is right, less light equals more death.

So tell it to me straight, Doctor Spaceman(SPAH-CHEM-AN), how long have we got? Astronomers have known for a long time that the Universe was much more active in the distant past, when everything was closer and denser, and better. Back then, more of it was the primordial hydrogen left over from the Big Bang, supplying galaxies for star formation. Currently, there are only 1 to 3 new stars formed in the Milky Way every year. Which is pretty slow by Milky Way standards.

Not even at the busiest time of star formation, our Sun formed 5 billion years ago. 5 billion years before that, just a short 4 billion after the Big Bang, star formation peaked out. There were 30 times more stars forming then, than we see today.

When stars were formed actually makes a difference. For example, the fact that it took so long for our Sun to form is a good thing. The heavier elements in the Solar System, really anything higher up the periodic table from hydrogen and helium, had to be formed inside other stars. Main sequence stars like our own Sun spew out heavier elements from their solar winds, while supernovae created the heaviest elements in a moment of catastrophic collapse. Astronomers are pretty sure we needed a few generations of stars to build up enough of the heavier elements that life depends on, and probably wouldn’t be here without it.

Even if life did form here on Earth billions of years ago, when the Universe was really cranking, it would wish it was never born. With 30 times as much star formation going on, there would be intense radiation blasting away from all these newly forming stars and their subsequent supernovae detonations. So be glad life formed when it did. Sometimes a little quiet is better.

So, how long has the Universe got? It appears that it’s not going to crash together in the future, it’s just going to keep on expanding, and expanding, forever and ever.

Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

In a few billion years, star formation will be a fraction of what it is today. In a few trillion, only the longest lived, lowest mass red dwarfs will still be pushing out their feeble light. Then, one by one, galaxies will see their last star flicker and fade away into the darkness. Then there’ll only be dead stars and dead planets, cooling down to the background temperature of the Universe as their galaxies accelerate from one another into the expanding void.

Eventually everything will be black holes, or milling about waiting to be trapped in black holes. And these black holes themselves will take an incomprehensible mighty pile of years to evaporate away to nothing.

So yes, our Universe is dying. Just like in a cheery Sartre play, it started dying the moment it began its existence. According to astronomers, the Universe will never truly die. It’ll just reach a distant future when there’s so little usable energy, it’ll be mostly dead. Dead enough? Dead inside.

As Miracle Max knows, mostly dead is still slightly alive. Who knows what future civilizations will figure out in the googol years between then and now.

Too sad? Let’s wildly speculate on futuristic technologies advanced civilizations will use to outlast the heat death of the Universe or flat out cheat death and re-spark it into a whole new cycle of Universal renewal.

Could We Terraform the Sun?

In the list of crazy hypothetical ideas, terraforming the Sun has to be one of the top 10. So just how would someone go about doing terraforming our sun, a star, if they wanted to try?

In our series on terraforming other worlds. We’ve covered Mars, Venus, the Moon and Jupiter. Even though I solved the problem of how to terraform Jupiter (you’re welcome, science), you wanted to take things to the next level and you demanded I sort out how to terraform the Sun. Seriously? The Sun. Fine… here we go.

Let’s see what we’ve got to work with here. It’s a massive ball of plasma, containing 333,000 times more mass than the Earth. It’s about 74% hydrogen and 25% helium with a few other trace elements. There’s no solid surface to stand on it, so we need to fix that.

The average temperature on the surface of the Sun is about 5,500 Celsius, while the average temperature on Earth is about 15 C. Iron boils at only 2,800 degrees, so… that’s probably too hot. We’ll need to cool it down.

The gravity on the surface of the Sun is 28 times the gravity of Earth. If you could stand on the surface of the Sun, which you can’t, you’d be crushed flat. Okay, so we’ll add reduce the gravity… check.

There’s no breathable atmosphere, there’s no solid ground, the Sun generates deadly X-rays. Oh, and don’t forget about the terrible sunburns from the ultraviolet radiation.

So, what’s the list? Hot fire unbreathable pressure cooker goo surface gravity crushing machine. Sounds impossible, or does it?

First, the gas. As we covered in a previous episode, scientists have actually considered ways that you might extract the hydrogen and helium off of a star like the Sun, known as “stellar lifting”. There are a few ways you could work this. You could zap the surface of the Sun with a powerful laser, increasing the speed of solar wind in that area, forcing the Sun to throw its mass off into space.

Another method is to set up powerful magnetic fields around the Sun’s poles, and channel its hydrogen into jets that blast out into space. I’m not sure how you actually set up those magnetic fields, but that’s not my problem.

Once you’re done with the Sun, you’ve stripped away all its hydrogen and helium gas. What are you left with? About 5,600 times the mass of the Earth in heavier elements, like oxygen, silicon, gold, etc. Great!

Jupiter/Earth comparison. Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard/Tdadamemd
Jupiter/Earth comparison. Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard/Tdadamemd

Except 5,600 sounds like a lot. Jupiter is only 316 times the mass of the Earth. We’re looking to reform a “planet” with more than 10 times the mass of Jupiter. And not only that, but we had to kill the Sun to make this work. You monsters.

This is a terrible idea. What else could we do? If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve heard of a Dyson Sphere. If not, you’ve got some TNG to catch up on.

First proposed by Freeman Dyson, you cover an entire Sun in a metal ball. Instead of the measly amount of energy that falls on Earth, this would allow you to capture 100% of the energy released by the Sun: 384 yottawatts.

According to Dyson and a variety of matheletes, you could dismantle all planets in the Solar System and build a sphere at a distance of 1 Earth radii at 8 to 20 centimeters thick. That would give you a surface area 550 million times more than the Earth.

Although, building an actual rigid sphere is probably unfeasible because it would be pretty unstable and eventually collapse. It probably makes more sense to build a swarm of satellites surrounding the Sun, capturing its energy.

We did a whole video on Dyson Spheres. Check it out here.

So there you go. I just terraformed the Sun. I’m terrified about your next suggestion: how could you terraform a black hole? I guess that’ll be the next video.

Would you like to live on my imagined terraformed Sun? If not, what about a Dyson Sphere or swarm?

Our Universe is Dying

Brace yourselves: winter is coming. And by winter I mean the slow heat-death of the Universe, and by brace yourselves I mean don’t get terribly concerned because the process will take a very, very, very long time. (But still, it’s coming.)

vista-survey-telescope
Part of ESO’s VISTA telescope in Chile, one of seven telescopes used in the GAMA survey (ESO)

Based on findings from the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, which used seven of the world’s most powerful telescopes to observe the sky in a wide array of electromagnetic wavelengths, the energy output of the nearby Universe (currently estimated to be ~13.82 billion years old) is currently half of what it was “only” 2 billion years ago — and it’s still decreasing.

“The Universe has basically plonked itself down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze,” said Professor Simon Driver from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Western Australia, head of the nearly 100-member international research team.

As part of the GAMA survey 200,000 galaxies were observed in 21 different wavelengths, from ultraviolet to far-infrared, from both the ground and in space. It’s the largest multi-wavelength galaxy survey ever made.

Of course this is something scientists have known about for decades but what the survey shows is that the reduction in output is occurring across a wide range of wavelengths. The cooling is, on the whole, epidemic.

Watch a video below showing a fly-through 3D simulation of the GAMA survey:

“Just as we become less active in our old age, the same is happening with the Universe, and it’s well past its prime,” says Dr. Luke Davies, a member of the ICRAR research team, in the video.

But, unlike living carbon-based bags of mostly water like us, the Universe won’t ever actually die. And for a long time still galaxies will evolve, stars and planets will form, and life – wherever it may be found – will go on. But around it all the trend will be an inevitable dissipation of energy.

“It will just grow old forever, slowly converting less and less mass into energy as billions of years pass by,” Davies says, “until eventually it will become a cold, dark, and desolate place where all of the lights go out.”

Our own Solar System will be a quite different place by then, the Sun having cast off its outer layers – roasting Earth and the inner planets in the process – and spending its permanent retirement cooling off as a white dwarf. What will remain of Earthly organisms by then, including us? Will we have spread throughout the galaxy, bringing our planet’s evolutionary heritage with us to thrive elsewhere? Or will our cradle also be our grave? That’s entirely up to us. But one thing is certain: the Universe isn’t waiting around for us to decide what to do.

The findings were presented by Professor Driver on Aug. 10, 2015, at the IAU XXIX General Assembly in Honolulu, and have been submitted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Read more/sources: ESO and ICRAR

How Can Black Holes Shine?

We hear that black holes absorb all the light that falls into them. And yet, we hear of black holes shining so brightly we can see them halfway across the Universe. What’s going on? Which is it?

I remember back to a classic episode of the Guide to Space, where I provided an extremely fascinating and concise explanation for what a quasar is. Don’t recall that episode? Well, it was super. Just super. Alright slackers, let’s recap.

Quasars are the brightest objects in the Universe, visible across billions of light years. Likely blanching life from everything in the path of the radiation beam from its lighthouse of death. They occur when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material, pouring out a mountain of radiation. Black holes, of course, are regions of space with such intense gravity where nothing, not even light itself, can escape.

But wait, not so fast “recap” Fraser Cain. I call shenanigans. If black holes absorb all the radiation that falls into them, how can they be bright?

You, Fraser Cain of days of yore, cannot have it both ways. It’s either a vortex of total destruction gobbling all the matter and light that fall into them OR alternately light can escape, which still sounds good. I mean, it could be WHERE NO STUFF CAN ESCAPE, except light.

If you’ll admit that you of the past was wrong, we’ll put you in the temporal cone of shame and move on with the episode. Right? Right? Wrong.

Let’s review. Black holes are freaky complicated beasts, with many layers. And I don’t mean that in some abstract Choprian “many connections on many different levels”. They’re a gobstopper from a Sam Neill Event Horizon style hellscape. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a black hole, and everything should fall into place, including the terror.

At the very heart of the black hole is the singularity. This is the region of compressed matter that used to be a star, or in the case of a supermassive black hole, millions or billions of times the mass of a star. Astronomers have no idea what the singularity looks like or behaves, because our understanding of physics completely breaks down, along with the rest of our brains.

Illustration of Cygnus X-1, another stellar-mass black hole located 6070 ly away. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Illustration of Cygnus X-1, another stellar-mass black hole located 6070 ly away. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

It’s possible that the singularity is a sphere of exotic matter, or maybe it’s constantly compressing down into an infinitely small size. It could also be a pork pie. We’ll never know, because nothing goes fast enough to escape from a black hole, not even light.

Maybe you’d need to be going 10 times the speed of light to escape. Or maybe a trillion times the speed of light. Which makes it easy; as far as we can tell, nothing can go faster than the speed of light, and so nothing is escaping.

As you get further from the singularity, the force of gravity decreases. Initially, it’ll still requires that you go faster than light. You’ll finally reach a very specific point where the escape velocity is exactly the speed of light. This is the event horizon, and it’s a different distance from the singularity with every black hole. That’s the line. Within the event horizon, the light is doomed, outside the event horizon, it can escape. This is the hard candy shell surrounding the chocolately unimaginable nightmare of physics.

So when see bright black holes, like a quasar, we’re not actually seeing light coming from inside the black hole itself or reflected of its surface. What we’re seeing is the material that’s piling up just outside the event horizon. For all its voracious hunger, a black hole’s gravitational eyes are much bigger than its stomach, and it can only feed so quickly. Excess stuff piles up around the black hole’s face and forms a vast disk of material, just like me at a Pizza Hut’s $5 all you can eat buffet. This pizza heats up until it’s like the core of a star, and starts blasting out radiation into space.

A WFPC2 image of a spiral-shaped disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87. HST measurements show the disk is rotating so rapidly it contains a massive black hole at its hub.
A WFPC2 image of a spiral-shaped disk of hot gas in the core of active galaxy M87. HST measurements show the disk is rotating so rapidly it contains a massive black hole at its hub.

Everything I’ve said is for non-spinning black holes, by the way. Physicists will always make this point with great emphasis. Stay your angry comments astrophysicists, for I have said the magic stone-cutter appeasement code-word, “Non-rotating”.

Of course, black holes do rotate, and can rotate at nearly the speed of light. And this rotation changes the nature of the black hole’s event horizon in ways that make difficult math even harder. All this spinning generates powerful magnetic fields around the black hole, which focuses jets of material that blast out for hundreds of thousands of light-years. When we see these bright quasars, we’re staring right at these jets with our delicate little eyeballs.

So how can we see light coming from black holes when black holes absorb all light? It’s not coming from black holes. It’s coming from the super-heated region of junk all around the black hole. And still, anything that falls through the event horizon, whether it be light, junk, you, me or Grumpy Cat it will never been seen again.

What’s your favorite sci-fi black hole? Tell us in the comments below.

Thanks for watching! Never miss an episode by clicking subscribe. Our Patreon community is the reason these shows happen. We’d like to thank Marcel-jan Krijgsman and the rest of the members who support us in making great space and astronomy content. Members get advance access to episodes, extras, contests, and other shenanigans with Jay, myself and the rest of the team. Want to get in on the action? Click here.

Will the Universe Run Out Of Energy?

It seems like the good times will go on forever, so feel free to keep on wasting energy. But entropy is patient, and eventually, it’ll make sure there’s no usable energy left in the Universe.

Thanks to the donations of generations of dinosaurs and their plant buddies, we’ve got fossils to burn. If we ever get off our dependence on those kinds of fuels, we’ll take advantage of renewable resources, like solar, wind, tidal, smug and geothermal. And if the physicists really deliver the goods, we’ll harness the power of the Sun and generate a nigh unlimited amount of fusion energy using the abundant hydrogen in all the oceans of the world. Fire up that replicator, the raktajino is on the house. Also, everything is now made of diamonds.

We’ll never run out of H+. Heck that stuff is already cluttering up our daily experience. 75% of the baryonic mass of the Universe is our little one-protoned friend. Closely followed up by helium and lithium, which we’ll gladly burn in our futuristic fusion reactors. Make no mistake, it’s all goin’ in.

It looks like the good times will never end. If we’ve energy to burn, we’ll never be able to contain our urges. Escalating off into more bizarre uses. Kilimajaro-sized ocean cruise liners catering to our most indulgent fantasies, colossal megastructure orbital laser casinos where life is cheap in the arena of sport. We’ll build bigger boards and bigger nails.or something absolutely ridiculous and decadent like artificial ski-hills in Dubai. Sadly, it’s naive to think it’s forever. Someday, quietly, those good times will end. Not soon, but in the distant distant future, all energy in the Universe will have been spent, and there won’t a spare electron to power a single LED.

Astronomers have thought long and hard about the distant future of the Universe. Once the main sequence stars have used up their hydrogen and become cold white dwarfs and even the dimmest red dwarfs have burned off their hydrogen. When the galaxies themselves can no longer make stars. After all the matter in the Universe is absorbed by black holes, or has cooled to the background temperature of the Universe.

Combining observations done with ESO's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1,000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist's impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of a Star feeding a black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes themselves will evaporate, disappearing slowly over the eons until they all become pure energy. Even the last proton of matter will decay into energy and dissipate. Well, maybe. Actually, physicists aren’t really sure about that yet. Free Nobel prize if you can prove it. Just saying.

And all this time, the Universe has been expanding, spreading matter and energy apart. The mysterious dark energy has been causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate, pushing material apart until single photons will stretch across light years of distance. This is entropy, the tendency for energy to be evenly distributed. Once everything, and I do mean all things, are the same temperature you’ve hit maximum entropy, where no further work can be done.

This is known as the heat death of the Universe. The temperature of the entire Universe will be an infinitesimal fraction of a degree above Absolute Zero. Right above the place where no further energy can be extracted from an atom and no work can be done. Terrifyingly, our Universe will be out of usable energy.

The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)
The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)

Interestingly, there’ll still be the same amount it started with, but it’ll be evenly distributed across all places, everywhere. This won’t happen any time soon. It’ll take trillions of years before the last stars die, and an incomprehensible amount of time before black holes evaporate. We also don’t even know if protons will actually decay at all. But heat death is our inevitable future.

There’s a glimmer of good news. The entire Universe might drop down to a new energy state. If we wait long enough, the Universe might spontaneously generate a new version of itself through quantum fluctuations. So with an infinite amount of time, who knows what might happen?

Burn up those dirty dinosaurs while you can! Enjoy the light from the Sun, and the sweet whirring power from your counter-top Mr. Fusion reactor. Your distant descendants will be jealous of your wasteful use of energy, non-smothering climate and access to coffee and chocolate, as they huddle around the fading heat from the last black holes, hoping for a new universe to appear.

What’s the most extreme use of energy you can imagine? Tell us in the comments below.

Could the Death Star Destroy a Planet?

In the movie Star Wars, the Darth Vader’s Death Star destroyed a planet. Could this really happen?

You’ve watched Star Wars right? Is that still a thing? With the Starring and the Warring? Anyway, there’s this classic scene where the “Death Star” sidles up to Alderaan, and it is all like “Hey Planetoid, you lookin’ fine tonight” and then it fires up the superlaser and destroys the entire orb in a single blast. “BOOM”. Shortly followed by some collective group screaming on the interstellar forceway radio.

This is generally described as “science fiction”. And when you’re making up stories, anything you like can happen in them. George Lucas’ hunger for your childhood toy money wasn’t hampered by the pesky constraints of physics in any meaningful way.

Here at the Guide to Space, we get to take our own flights of fancy and pointlessly speculate for your amusement. That’s our job. Well, that and snark. Let’s consider what it would actually take to destroy a planet with a ‘pew pew’ style laser beam, and what kinds of energy would need to be harnessed in a fully armed and operational battle station.

Let’s go back and carefully review our “evidence”. The Death Star drifts in, charges up all its lasers into a superlaser blast focused on Alderaan. The planet then detonates and chunks fly off in every direction just like the pie eating contest in “Stand By Me”.

What we saw was every part of Alderaan given enough of a kick so that it was traveling at escape velocity from every other part of the planet. If the Death Star hadn’t delivered enough explosive energy, the planet might have fluffed up for a moment, but then the collective gravity would suck it all back in together, and then the slightly re-arranged, and likely now uninhabited planet would continue orbiting its star.

You can imagine doing this the slow way. Take each continent on Alderaan, load it up into a rocket and blast that rocket off into space as though it was on escape trajectory from the planet. Sure, you’d would need an incomprehensible number of rocket launches to get that material off the planet. But hey, midichlorians, blue finger lightning and ESP.

Fortunately, as you carted away more and more of the busted up rock, it would have less mutual gravity, and so the rocket launches would require less and less energy to get the job done. Eventually, you’d just be left with one last chunk of rock that you could just force ninja kick into the neighboring star.

Death Star beam. Credit: Lucasfilm
Death Star beam. Credit: Lucasfilm

So how much energy is that going to take? Well, there’s an “easy” calculation you can make. The energy you’d need is equal to 3 times the gravitational constant (6.673 x 10^-11) times the mass of the planet squared divided by 5 times the planet’s radius. Do this math for an Earth-sized/mass world, and let’s see that’s, two and one, carry the 5… and you get 2 x 10^36 joules. That’s a two followed by 36 zeros in joules. Is that a lot? That sounds like a lot.

Well, our own Sun puts out 3 x 10^26 joules per second. So, if you poured all the energy from the Sun into the task of tearing apart the Earth, it wouldn’t have enough energy to do it. In fact, you’d need to focus the light of the Sun for a full week to get that level of planet destruction done.

According to ancient Star Warsian dork scholars, the Death Star (SOLUS MORTIS) is powered by a hyperreactor with the output of multiple main sequence stars. So there you go, problem solved. It’s the size of a small moon, but it’s more powerful than many stars. Of course it can destroy a planet.

Exploding planet. Credit: ESO
Exploding planet. Credit: ESO

The Death Star clearly destroyed Alderaan. We watched it explode. I saw it, you saw it. We heard the screams of millions of souls cry out. It happened. But what if it wasn’t a beam thingy?

Our math is good, but clearly we’re not enlightened enough to comprehend the true wisdom hidden within the Lucasian scriptures. Perhaps the Death Star’s superlaser was just a targeting laser. Directing the placement of gigantic antimatter bomb. According to Ethan Siegel, from “Starts With a Bang,” you’d only need 1.24 trillion tonnes of antimatter.

Imagine you made a bomb out of that much antimatter iron – if that’s even a thing – you’d only need a sphere about 3 km across. If the Death Star is 150 km across or so, they could carry a bunch of these. Very carefully. Like super carefully. Okay, maybe it’d be a good idea if everyone took off their boots, and make sure they only talked with their inside voices.

Obviously, Star Wars is a story, so anything, ANYTHING can happen. The future is unknown, and we might discover all kinds of weirdo physics and harness them into all kinds of powerful weapons. I’m only suggesting, that a space station capable of deploying a week’s worth of solar energy in a single second might be a stretch. And maybe, George, if you just done a little back of the napkin math, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now. Also, maybe no Ewoks. I’m just saying.

Where do you stand on the feasibility of imaginary space station weaponry? How big a planet can your imagination destroy?