Fifty years ago, English mathematical physicist and Nobel-prize winner Roger Penrose proposed that energy could be extracted from the space around a rotating black hole. Known as the ergosphere, this region lies just outside an event horizon, the boundary within which nothing can escape a black hole’s gravitational pull (even light). It is also here where infalling matter is accelerated to incredible speeds and emits all kinds of energy.
This became known as the Penrose Process, which many theorists have since expanded on. The latest comes from a study conducted by researchers from Columbia University and the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile. With support from organizations like NASA, they demonstrated how a better understanding of the physics at work around spinning black holes could allow us to harness their energy someday.
Black holes are famous for being inescapable. Within the event horizon of these celestial objects, matter and even light enter and then disappear forever. However, beyond the event horizon, black holes are known to form accretion disks from which light can escape. In fact, this is how astronomers are able to confirm the presence of black holes and determine their properties (i.e. mass, spin rate, etc.)
However, according to a recent NASA-funded study led by researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), there is evidence that not all light emanating from a black hole’s disk simply escapes. According to their observations, some of the light escaping from the disk is pulled back in by the black hole’s gravity and reflected off the disk again. These observations confirm something astronomers have theorized for about forty years.
In April of 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration history made history when it released the first image of a black hole ever taken. This accomplishment was decades in the making and triggered an international media circus. The picture was the result of a technique known as interferometry, where observatories across the world combined light from their telescopes to create a composite image.
This image showed what astrophysicists have predicted for a long time, that extreme gravitational bending causes photons to fall in around the event horizon, contributing to the bright rings that surround them. Last week, on March 18th, a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) announced new research that shows how black hole images could reveal an intricate substructure within them.
Perhaps the greatest discovery to come from the “Golden Age of General Relativity” (ca. 1960 to 1975) was the realization that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) exists at the center of our galaxy. In time, scientists came to realize that similarly massive black holes were responsible for the extreme amounts of energy emanating from the active galactic nuclei (AGNs) of distant quasars.
Given their sheer size, mass, and energetic nature, scientists have known for some time that some pretty awesome things take place beyond the event horizon of an SMBH. But according to a recent study by a team of Japanese researchers, it is possible that SMBHs can actually form a system of planets! In fact, the research team concluded that SMBHs can form planetary systems that would put our Solar System to shame!
As many of you are no doubt aware, our noble publisher, Fraser Cain, occasionally has the opportunity to sit down with some fellow great minds and discussion/debate issues that are relevant to space, exploration, and astronomy today. Most recently, this included an extended debate with noted author, futurists and Youtube sensation John Michael Godier.
The subject of this debate was the unresolved mystery that keeps more than a few astrophysicists awake at night. This is none other than the Fermi Paradox, the question that asks “Where are they?”
The largest object in our night sky—by far!—is invisible to us. The object is the Super-Massive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A. But soon we may have an image of Sagittarius A’s event horizon. And that image may pose a challenge to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
Just a couple of weeks ago, astronomers from Caltech announced their third detection of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO.
As with the previous two detections, astronomers have determined that the waves were generated when two intermediate-mass black holes slammed into each other, sending out ripples of distorted spacetime.
One black hole had 31.2 times the mass of the Sun, while the other had 19.4 solar masses. The two spiraled inward towards each other, until they merged into a single black hole with 48.7 solar masses. And if you do the math, twice the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves as the black holes merged.
These gravitational waves traveled outward from the colossal collision at the speed of light, stretching and compressing spacetime like a tsunami wave crossing the ocean until they reached Earth, located about 2.9 billion light-years away.
The waves swept past each of the two LIGO facilities, located in different parts of the United States, stretching the length of carefully calibrated laser measurements. And from this, researchers were able to detect the direction, distance and strength of the original merger.
Seriously, if this isn’t one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard, I’m clearly easily impressed.
Now that the third detection has been made, I think it’s safe to say we’re entering a brand new field of gravitational astronomy. In the coming decades, astronomers will use gravitational waves to peer into regions they could never see before.
Being able to perceive gravitational waves is like getting a whole new sense. It’s like having eyes and then suddenly getting the ability to perceive sound.
This whole new science will take decades to unlock, and we’re just getting started.
As Einstein predicted, any mass moving through space generates ripples in spacetime. When you’re just walking along, you’re actually generating tiny ripples. If you can detect these ripples, you can work backwards to figure out what size of mass made the ripples, what direction it was moving, etc.
Even in places that you couldn’t see in any other way. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Black holes, obviously, are the low hanging fruit. When they’re not actively feeding, they’re completely invisible, only detectable by how they gravitational attract objects or bend light from objects passing behind them.
But seen in gravitational waves, they’re like ships moving across the ocean, leaving ripples of distorted spacetime behind them.
With our current capabilities through LIGO, astronomers can only detect the most massive objects moving at a significant portion of the speed of light. A regular black hole merger doesn’t do the trick – there’s not enough mass. Even a supermassive black hole merger isn’t detectable yet because these mergers seem to happen too slowly.
This is why all the detections so far have been intermediate-mass black holes with dozens of times the mass of our Sun. And we can only detect them at the moment that they’re merging together, when they’re generating the most intense gravitational waves.
If we can boost the sensitivity of our gravitational wave detectors, we should be able to spot mergers of less and more massive black holes.
But merging isn’t the only thing they do. Black holes are born when stars with many more times the mass of our Sun collapse in on themselves and explode as supernovae. Some stars, we’ve now learned just implode as black holes, never generating the supernovae, so this process happens entirely hidden from us.
Is there a singularity at the center of a black hole event horizon, or is there something there, some kind of object smaller than a neutron star, but bigger than an infinitely small point? As black holes merge together, we could see beyond the event horizon with gravitational waves, mapping out the invisible region within to get a sense of what’s going on down there.
We want to know about even less massive objects like neutron stars, which can also form from a supernova explosion. These neutron stars can orbit one another and merge generating some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma ray bursts. But do neutron stars have surface features? Different densities? Could we detect a wobble in the gravitational waves in the last moments before a merger?
And not everything needs to merge. Sensitive gravitational wave detectors could sense binary objects with a large imbalance, like a black hole or neutron star orbiting around a main sequence star. We could detect future mergers by their gravitational waves.
Are gravitational waves a momentary distortion of spacetime, or do they leave some kind of permanent dent on the Universe that we could trace back? Will we see echoes of gravity from gravitational waves reflecting and refracting through the fabric of the cosmos?
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be using gravitational waves to see beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This region shows us the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when everything was cool enough for light to move freely through the Universe.
But there was mass there, before that moment. Moving, merging mass that would have generated gravitational waves. As we explained in a previous article, astronomers are working to find the imprint of these gravitational waves on the Cosmic Microwave Background, like an echo, or a shadow. Perhaps there’s a deeper Cosmic Gravitational Background Radiation out there, one which will let us see right to the beginning of time, just moments after the Big Bang.
And as always, there will be the surprises. The discoveries in this new field that nobody ever saw coming. The “that’s funny” moments that take researchers down into whole new fields of discovery, and new insights into how the Universe works.
The LIGO project was begun back in 1994, and the first iteration operated from 2002 to 2012 without a single gravitational wave detection. It was clear that the facility wasn’t sensitive enough, so researchers went back and made massive improvements.
In 2008, they started improving the facility, and in 2015, Advanced LIGO came online with much more sensitivity. With the increased capabilities, Advanced LIGO made its first discovery in 2016, and now two more discoveries have been added.
LIGO can currently only detect the general hemisphere of the sky where a gravitational wave was emitted. And so, LIGO’s next improvement will be to add another facility in India, called INDIGO. In addition to improving the sensitivity of LIGO, this will give astronomers three observations of each event, to precisely detect the origin of the gravitational waves. Then visual astronomers could do follow up observations, to map the event to anything in other wavelengths.
A European experiment known as Virgo has been operating for a few years as well, agreeing to collaborate with the LIGO team if any detections are made. So far, the Virgo experiment hasn’t found anything, but it’s being upgraded with 10 times the sensitivity, which should be fully operational by 2018.
A Japanese experiment called the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector, or KAGRA, will come online in 2018 as well, and be able to contribute to the observations. It should be capable of detecting binary neutron star mergers out to nearly a billion light-years away.
Just with visual astronomy, there are a set of next generation supergravitational wave telescopes in the works, which should come online in the next few decades.
The Europeans are building the Einstein Telescope, which will have detection arms 10 km long, compared to 4 km for LIGO. That’s like, 6 more km.
There’s the European Space Agency’s space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which could launch in 2030. This will consist of a fleet of 3 spacecraft which will maintain a precise distance of 2.5 million km from each other. Compare that to the Earth-based detection distances, and you can see why the future of observations will come from space.
And that last idea, looking right back to the beginning of time could be a possibility with the Big Bang Observer mission, which will have a fleet of 12 spacecraft flying in formation. This is still all in the proposal stage, so no concrete date for if or when they’ll actually fly.
Gravitational wave astronomy is one of the most exciting fields of astronomy. This entirely new sense is pushing out our understanding of the cosmos in entirely new directions, allowing us to see regions we could never even imagine exploring before. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
At the center of our Milky Way galaxy dwells a behemoth. An object so massive that nothing can escape its gravitational pull, not even light. In fact, we think most galaxies have one of them. They are, of course, supermassive black holes.
Supermassive black holes are stars that have collapsed into a singularity. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted their existence. And these black holes are surrounded by what’s known as an event horizon, which is kind of like the point of no return for anything getting too close to the black hole. But nobody has actually proven the existence of the event horizon yet.
Some theorists think that something else might lie at the center of galaxies, a supermassive object event stranger than a supermassive black hole. Theorists think these objects have somehow avoided a black hole’s fate, and have not collapsed into a singularity. They would have no event horizon, and would have a solid surface instead.
“Our whole point here is to turn this idea of an event horizon into an experimental science, and find out if event horizons really do exist or not,” – Pawan Kumar Professor of Astrophysics, University of Texas at Austin.
A team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University have tackled the problem. Wenbin Lu, Pawan Kumar, and Ramesh Narayan wanted to shed some light onto the event horizon problem. They wondered about the solid surface object, and what would happen when an object like a star collided with it. They published their results in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“Our whole point here is to turn this idea of an event horizon into an experimental science, and find out if event horizons really do exist or not,” said Pawan Kumar, Professor of Astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin, in a press release.
Since a black hole is a star collapsed into a singularity, it has no surface area, and instead has an event horizon. But if the other theory turns out to be true, and the object has a solid surface instead of an event horizon, then any object colliding with it would be destroyed. If a star was to collide with this hard surface and be destroyed, the team surmised, then the gas from the star would enshroud the object and shine brightly for months, or even years.
If that were the case, then the team knew what to look for. They also worked out how often this would happen.
“We estimated the rate of stars falling onto supermassive black holes,” Lu said in the same press release. “Nearly every galaxy has one. We only considered the most massive ones, which weigh about 100 million solar masses or more. There are about a million of them within a few billion light-years of Earth.”
Now they needed a way to search the sky for these objects, and they found it in the archives of the Pan-STARRS telescope. Pan-STARRS is a 1.8 meter telescope in Hawaii. That telescope recently completed a survey of half of the northern hemisphere of the sky. In that survey, Pan-STAARS spent 3.5 years looking for transient objects in the sky, objects that brighten and then fade. They searched the Pan-STARR archives for transient objects that had the signature they predicted from stars colliding with these supermassive, hard-surfaced objects.
The trio predicted that in the 3.5 year time-frame captured by the Pan-STAARS survey, 10 of these collisions would occur and should be represented in the data.
“It turns out it should have detected more than 10 of them, if the hard-surface theory is true.” – Wenbin Lu, Dept. of Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin.
“Given the rate of stars falling onto black holes and the number density of black holes in the nearby universe, we calculated how many such transients Pan-STARRS should have detected over a period of operation of 3.5 years. It turns out it should have detected more than 10 of them, if the hard-surface theory is true,” Lu said.
The team found none of the flare-ups they expected to see if the hard-surface theory is true.
“Our work implies that some, and perhaps all, black holes have event horizons…” – Ramesh Narayan, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
What might seem like a failure, isn’t one of course. Not for Einstein, anyway. This represents yet another successful test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, showing that the event horizon predicted in his theory does seem to exist.
As for the team, they haven’t abandoned the idea yet. In fact, according to Pawan Kumar, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Texas at Austin, “Our motive is not so much to establish that there is a hard surface, but to push the boundary of knowledge and find concrete evidence that really, there is an event horizon around black holes.”
“General Relativity has passed another critical test.” – Ramesh Narayan, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“Our work implies that some, and perhaps all, black holes have event horizons and that material really does disappear from the observable universe when pulled into these exotic objects, as we’ve expected for decades,” Narayan said. “General Relativity has passed another critical test.”
The team plans to continue to look for the flare-ups associated with the hard-surface theory. Their look into the Pan-STARRS data was just their first crack at it.
They’re hoping to improve their test with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) being built in Chile. The LSST is a wide field telescope that will capture images of the night sky every 20 seconds over a ten-year span. Every few nights, the LSST will give us an image of the entire available night sky. This will make the study of transient objects much easier and effective.
For decades, scientists have held that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of larger galaxies. These reality-bending points in space exert an extremely powerful influence on all things that surround them, consuming matter and spitting out a tremendous amount of energy. But given their nature, all attempts to study them have been confined to indirect methods.
All of that changed beginning on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, when an international team of astronomers obtained the first-ever image of a Sagittarius A*. Using a series of telescopes from around the globe – collectively known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – they were able to visualize the mysterious region around this giant black hole from which matter and energy cannot escape – i.e. the event horizon.
Not only is this the first time that this mysterious region around a black hole has been imaged, it is also the most extreme test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity ever attempted. It also represents the culmination of the EHT project, which was established specifically for the purpose of studying black holes directly and improving our understanding of them.
Since it began capturing data in 2006, the EHT has been dedicated to the study of Sagittarius A* since it is the nearest SMBH in the known Universe – located about 25,000 light years from Earth. Specifically, scientists hoped to determine if black holes are surrounded by a circular region from which matter and energy cannot escape (which is predicted by General Relativity), and how they accrete matter onto themselves.
Rather than constituting a single facility, the EHT relies on a worldwide network of radio astronomy facilities based on four continents, all of which are dedicated to studying one of the most powerful and mysterious forces in the Universe. This process, whereby widely-space radio dishes from across the globe are connected into an Earth-sized virtual telescope, is known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).
“Instead of building a telescope so big that it would probably collapse under its own weight, we combined eight observatories like the pieces of a giant mirror. This gave us a virtual telescope as big as Earth—about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) is diameter.”
With these arrays, the EHT radio-dish network is the only one powerful enough to detect the light released when an object would disappear into Sagittarius A*. And from six nights – from Wednesday, April 5th, to Tuesday, April 11th, – all of its arrays were trained on the center of our Milky Way to do just that. By the end of the run, the international team announced that they had snapped the first-ever picture of an event horizon.
In the end, some 500 terabytes of data were collected. This data is now being transferred to the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts, where it will be processed by supercomputers and turned into an image. “For the first time in our history, we have the technological capacity to observe black holes in detail,” said Bremer. “The images will emerge as we combine all the data. But we’re going to have to wait several months for the result.”
Part of the reason for the wait is the fact that the recorded data obtained by the South Pole Telescope can only be collected when spring starts in Antarctica – which won’t happen until October 2017 at the earliest. As such, it won’t be until 2018 before the public gets to feast its eyes on the shadow region that surrounds Sagittarius A*, and it is not expected that the first image will be entirely clear.
As Heino Falcke – an astronomers from Radbound University who now chairs the Scientific Council of EHT (and was the one who proposed this experiment twenty years ago) – explained in a EHT press release prior to the observation being made:
“It is the challenge of doing something, that has never been attempted before. It is the start of an adventurous journey towards a black hole… However, I think we need more observation campaigns and eventually more telescopes in the network to make a really good image.”
Despite the wait, and the fact that repeated attempts will be needed before we can get our first clear look at a black hole, there is still plenty of reason to celebrate in the meantime. Not only was this a first that was a long time in he making, but it also represents a major leap towards understanding one of the most powerful and mysterious forces of nature.
Given time, the study of black holes may allow for us to finally resolve how gravity and the other fundamental forces of the Universe interact. At long last, we will be able to comprehend all of existence as a single, unified equation!
Today we’re going to have the most surreal conversation. I’m going to struggle to explain it, and you’re going to struggle to understand it. And only Stephen Hawking is going to really, truly, understand what’s actually going on.
But that’s fine, I’m sure he appreciates our feeble attempts to wrap our brains around this mind bending concept.
All right? Let’s get to it. Black holes again. But this time, we’re going to figure out their temperature.
The very idea that a black hole could have a temperature strains the imagination. I mean, how can something that absorbs all the matter and energy that falls into it have a temperature? When you feel the warmth of a toasty fireplace, you’re really feeling the infrared photons radiating from the fire and surrounding metal or stone.
And black holes absorb all the energy falling into them. There is absolutely no infrared radiation coming from a black hole. No gamma radiation, no radio waves. Nothing gets out.
Now, supermassive black holes can shine with the energy of billions of stars, when they become quasars. When they’re actively feeding on stars and clouds of gas and dust. This material piles up into an accretion disk around the black hole with such density that it acts like the core of a star, undergoing nuclear fusion.
But that’s not the kind of temperature we’re talking about. We’re talking about the temperature of the black hole’s event horizon, when it’s not absorbing any material at all.
The temperature of black holes is connected to this whole concept of Hawking Radiation. The idea that over vast periods of time, black holes will generate virtual particles right at the edge of their event horizons. The most common kind of particles are photons, aka light, aka heat.
Normally these virtual particles are able to recombine and disappear in a puff of annihilation as quickly as they appear. But when a pair of these virtual particles appear right at the event horizon, one half of the pair drops into the black hole, while the other is free to escape into the Universe.
From your perspective as an outside observer, you see these particles escaping from the black hole. You see photons, and therefore, you can measure the temperature of the black hole.
The temperature of the black hole is inversely proportional to the mass of the black hole and the size of the event horizon. Think of it this way. Imagine the curved surface of a black hole’s event horizon. There are many paths that a photon could try to take to get away from the event horizon, and the vast majority of those are paths that take it back down into the black hole’s gravity well.
But for a few rare paths, when the photon is traveling perfectly perpendicular to the event horizon, then the photon has a chance to escape. The larger the event horizon, the less paths there are that a photon could take.
Since energy is being released into the Universe at the black hole’s event horizon, but energy can neither be created or destroyed, the black hole itself provides the mass that supplies the energy to release these photons.
The black hole evaporates.
The most massive black holes in the Universe, the supermassive black holes with millions of times the math of the Sun will have a temperature of 1.4 x 10^-14 Kelvin. That’s low. Almost absolute zero, but not quite.
A solar mass black hole might have a temperature of only .0.00000006 Kelvin. We’re getting warmer.
Since these temperatures are much lower than the background temperature of the Universe – about 2.7 Kelvin, all the existing black holes will have an overall gain of mass. They’re absorbing energy from the Cosmic Background Radiation faster than they’re evaporating, and will for an incomprehensible amount of time into the future.
Until the background temperature of the Universe goes below the temperature of these black holes, they won’t even start evaporating.
A black hole with the mass of the Earth is still too cold.
Only a black hole with about the mass of the Moon is warm enough to be evaporating faster than it’s absorbing energy from the Universe.
As they get less massive, they get even hotter. A black hole with the mass of the asteroid Ceres would be 122 Kelvin. Still freezing, but getting warmer.
A black hole with half the mass of Vesta would blaze at more than 1,200 Kelvin. Now we’re cooking!
Less massive, higher temperatures.
When black holes have lost most of their mass, they release the final material in a tremendous blast of energy, which should be visible to our telescopes.
Some astronomers are actively searching the night sky for blasts from black holes which were formed shortly after the Big Bang, when the Universe was hot and dense enough that black holes could just form.
It took them billions of years of evaporation to get to the point that they’re starting to explode now.
This is just conjecture, though, no explosions have ever been linked to primordial black holes so far.
It’s pretty crazy to think that an object that absorbs all energy that falls into it can also emit energy. Well, that’s the Universe for you. Thanks for helping us figure it out Dr. Hawking.