How Fast is Gravity?

How long would it take for the gravitational well created by the Sun to disappear, and the Earth and the rest of the planets fly off into space?

In the very first episode of the Guide to Space, a clean shaven version of me, hunched over in my basement explained how long it takes for light to get from the Sun to the Earth. To answer that question, it takes light about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to make the trip.

In other words, if the Sun suddenly disappeared from space itself, we’d still see it shining in the sky for over 8 minutes before the everything went dark. Martians would take about 12 minutes to notice the Sun was gone, and New Horizons which is nearly at Pluto wouldn’t see a change for over 4 hours.

Although this idea is a little mind-bending, I’m sure you’ve got your head wrapped around it. We’ve sure gone on about it here on this show. The further you look into space, the further you’re looking back in time because of the speed of light, but have you ever considered the speed of gravity?

Let’s go back to that original example and remove the Sun again. How long would it take for the gravitational well created by the Sun to disappear.

When would the Earth and the rest of the planets fly off into space without the Sun holding the whole Solar System together with its gravity? Would it happen instantly, or would it take time for the information to reach Earth?

It sounds like a simple question, but it’s actually really tough to tell. The force of gravity, compared to other forces in the Universe, is actually pretty weak. It’s practically impossible to test in the laboratory.

According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, distortions in spacetime caused by mass – also known as gravity – will propagate out at the speed of light. In other words, the light from the Sun and the gravity of the Sun should disappear at exactly the same time from the Earth’s perspective.

But that’s just a theory and a bunch of fancy math. Is there any way to test this out in reality? Astronomers have figured a way to deduce this indirectly by watching the interactions with massive objects in space.

Twin pulsars.  Credit: Michael Kramer, University of Manchester

In the binary system PSR 1913+16, there’s a pair of pulsars orbiting each other within just a few times bigger than the width of the Sun. As they spin around each other, the pulsars warp the spacetime themselves by releasing gravitational waves. And this release of gravitational waves causes the pulsars to slow down.

It’s amazing that astronomers can even measure this orbital decay, but the even more amazing part is that they use this process to measure the speed of gravity. When they did the calculations, astronomers determined the speed of gravity to be within 1% of the speed of light – that’s close enough.

Scientists have also used careful observations of Jupiter to get at this number. By watching how Jupiter’s gravity warps the light from a background quasar as it passes in front, they were able to determine that the speed of gravity is between 80% and 120% of the speed of light. Again, that’s close enough.

So there you go. The speed of gravity equals the speed of light. And should the Sun suddenly disappear, we’ll be glad to get all the bad news at the same time.

Gravity is a harsh mistress. Tell us a story about a time gravity was too fast for you. Put it in the comments below.

What is on the Other Side of a Black Hole?

Picture an entire star collapsed down into a gravitational singularity. An object with so much mass, compressed so tightly, that nothing, not even light itself can escape its grasp. It’s no surprise these objects have captured our imagination… and yet, I have a complaint.

The name “black hole” seems to have created something of a misunderstanding. And the images that show the gravitational well of a black hole don’t seem to help either.

From all the correspondence I get, I know many imagine these objects as magnificent portals to some other world or dimension. That they might be gateways which will take you off to adventures with beautiful glistening people in oddly tailored chainmail codpieces and bikinis.

So, if you were to jump into a black hole, where would you come out? What’s on the other side? Where do they take you to? Black holes don’t actually “go” anywhere. There isn’t an actual “hole” involved at all.

They’re massive black orbs in space with an incomprehensible gravitational field. We’re familiar with things that are black in color, like asphalt, or your favorite Cure shirt from the Wish tour that you’ve only ever hand-washed.

Black holes aren’t that sort of black. They’re black because even light, the fastest thing in the Universe, has given up trying to escape their immense gravity.

Let’s aim for a little context. Consider this. Imagine carrying an elephant around on your shoulders. Better yet, imagine wearing an entire elephant, like a suit. Now, let’s get off the couch and go for a walk. This what it would feel like if the gravity on Earth increased by a factor of 50. If we were to increase the force of gravity around your couch up to a level near the weakest possible black hole, it would be billions of times stronger than you would experience stuck under your elephant suit.

And so, if you jumped into a black hole, riding your space dragon, wearing maximus power gauntlets of punchiness and wielding some sort of ridiculous light-based melee weapon, you would then be instantly transformed … by those terrible tidal forces unravelling your body into streams of atoms… and then your mass would be added to the black hole.

Just so we’re clear on this, you don’t go anywhere. You just get added to the black hole.
It’s like wondering about the magical place you go if you jump into a trash compactor.
If you did jump into a black hole, your experience would be one great angular discomfort and then atomic disassembly. Here’s the truly nightmarish part. ..

As time distorts near the event horizon of a black hole, the outside Universe would watch you descend towards it more and more slowly. In theory, from their perspective it would take an infinite amount of time for you to become a part of the black hole. Even photons reflecting off your newly shaped body would be stretched out to the point that you would become redder and redder, and eventually, just fade away.

Artist concept of a view inside a black hole. Credit:  April Hobart, NASA, Chandra X-Ray Observatory
Artist concept of a view inside a black hole. Credit: April Hobart, NASA, Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Now that that is over with. Let’s clear up the matter of that diagram. Consider that image of a black hole’s gravity well. Anything with mass distorts space-time. The more mass you have, the more of a distortion you make….And black holes make bigger distortions than anything else in the Universe.

Light follows a straight line through space-time, even when space-time has been distorted into the maw of a black hole. When you get inside the black hole’s event horizon, all paths lead directly to the singularity, even if you’re a photon of light, moving directly away from it. It sounds just awful. The best news is that, from your perspective, it’s a quick and painful death for you and your space dragon.

So, if you had any plans to travel into a black hole, I urge you to reconsider. This isn’t a way to quickly travel to another spot in the Universe, or transcend to a higher form of consciousness. There’s nothing on the other side. Just disassembly and death.
If you’re looking for an escape to another dimension, might I suggest a good book instead?

Here’s an article I did about how to maximize your time while falling into a black hole.