Black Hole Roundup: Understanding Black Holes, Tracking Them and Current Events

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By Jessica Reynolds, Guest Blogger

Even with what scientists currently know about black holes, much is still a mystery. Scientists are constantly refining what they know. For example, until recently scientists believed they would only ever find one black hole per star cluster. In Oct. 2012, however, scientists found two small, twin black holes at the center of a cluster. Despite what we don’t know about black holes, though, there are some things we’re quite sure about.

Black Hole Basics
Black holes produce an intense gravitational pull. So strong, in fact, that black holes even bend light toward themselves. And the farther to the center you get to the black hole, the more gravitational pull it has. This gravitational pull is caused by pushing a lot of mass into a very small place. This happens when a very large star collapses in on itself, pushing its mass close together and increasing gravitational pull. How big does a star need to be to become a black hole? To give you an idea: Our sun is too small.

You can’t “see” black hole. Instead, black holes are tracked by what you can’t see. More on this in the section below.

Things start to get odd at the horizon, or edge, of a black hole. From a distance, the horizon appears static. This is because light can still escape from the black hole at the edge of the horizon (without crossing over the horizon). If you were to ever cross over into a black hole, however, the horizon would appear to move away from you at the speed of light.

A black hole’s size is relative, especially when talking about size in terms of mass. Theoretically, you can create a black hole out of any amount of mass as long as you compress it into a small enough space. In terms of size in width and length: Scientists just aren’t sure. No theory currently exists about how small or big a black hole can actually be.

More Information on Black Hole Basics

Tracking Black Holes
As I said, scientists can’t actually see black holes. Generally, scientists see objects from the light those objects give off, but black holes don’t give off any light (because it can’t escape). So instead of seeing a black hole itself, scientists track the effects of a black hole.

For example, scientists recently found a star “whipping” around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Although scientists can’t see the black hole, they see this star (titled SO-102) making a complete revolution every 11.5 years around seemingly nothing. It is this “nothingness” that scientists call a black hole.

SO 102 and SO-2 (another star orbiting around the black hole), as they orbit around the center of our galaxy. Credit: Andrea Ghez et al./UCLA/Keck Link:

The fact that scientists can’t “see” black holes today isn’t stopping them from trying. According to a January 2012 Forbes article, scientists are trying to feed data from multiple telescopes into a supercomputer in hopes of capturing the first image of a black hole. If successful, scientists will be able to test Einstein’s Theory of Relatively. And the discovery of SO-102 could give them the opportunity they’ve been waiting for.

Current Events
These are indeed exciting times for black holes. In addition to the current events talked about above, Cambridge scientists are studying some newly-discovered and growing supermassive black holes and scientists in Britain have been funded to create an artificial black hole in the lab.

Unfortunately, hobbiests and citizen scientists will have a hard time being part of the action. The best we can do at the moment is to follow the projects mentioned here. We can only hope that, at some point, scientists will gain enough insight to allow citizen scientists to see – and study – the black hole themselves.


About the Author
Jessica Reynolds loves design, art, photography and science. She brings all these talents to the table by writing for Poster Session, a division of MegaPrint.


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One Response to Black Hole Roundup: Understanding Black Holes, Tracking Them and Current Events

  1. Dave says:

    Don’t forget that black holes can emit Hawking Radiation. As such, they can lose mass, and, eventually, evaporate.

    Also, there are several types of black holes, in addition to the simple kind. Consider what happens if a black hole forms with an electrical charge, or one that forms from a rotating mass.

    Can there be other shapes than just a point? Can a black hole assume the shape of a ring?


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