Black Holes

Don't let the name fool you: a black hole is anything but empty space. Rather, it is a great amount of matter packed into a very small area - think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. In recent years, NASA instruments have painted a new picture of these strange objects that are, to many, the most fascinating objects in space.

Intense X-ray flares thought to be caused by a black hole devouring a star. (Video)

The idea of an object in space so massive and dense that light could not escape it has been around for centuries. Most famously, black holes were predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity, which showed that when a massive star dies, it leaves behind a small, dense remnant core. If the core's mass is more than about three times the mass of the Sun, the equations showed, the force of gravity overwhelms all other forces and produces a black hole.

Black Holes
A video about black holes.

Scientists can't directly observe black holes with telescopes that detect x-rays, light, or other forms of electromagnetic radiation. We can, however, infer the presence of black holes and study them by detecting their effect on other matter nearby. If a black hole passes through a cloud of interstellar matter, for example, it will draw matter inward in a process known as accretion. A similar process can occur if a normal star passes close to a black hole. In this case, the black hole can tear the star apart as it pulls it toward itself. As the attracted matter accelerates and heats up, it emits x-rays that radiate into space. Recent discoveries offer some tantalizing evidence that black holes have a dramatic influence on the neighborhoods around them - emitting powerful gamma ray bursts, devouring nearby stars, and spurring the growth of new stars in some areas while stalling it in others.

One Star's End is a Black Hole's Beginning

Most black holes form from the remnants of a large star that dies in a supernova explosion. (Smaller stars become dense neutron stars, which are not massive enough to trap light.) If the total mass of the star is large enough (about three times the mass of the Sun), it can be proven theoretically that no force can keep the star from collapsing under the influence of gravity. However, as the star collapses, a strange thing occurs. As the surface of the star nears an imaginary surface called the "event horizon," time on the star slows relative to the time kept by observers far away. When the surface reaches the event horizon, time stands still, and the star can collapse no more - it is a frozen collapsing object.

Black Hole Jets
Astronomers have identified a candidate for the smallest-known black hole. (Video)

Even bigger black holes can result from stellar collisions. Soon after its launch in December 2004, NASA's Swift telescope observed the powerful, fleeting flashes of light known as gamma ray bursts. Chandra and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope later collected data from the event's "afterglow," and together the observations led astronomers to conclude that the powerful explosions can result when a black hole and a neutron star collide, producing another black hole.

Babies and Giants

Although the basic formation process is understood, one perennial mystery in the science of black holes is that they appear to exist on two radically different size scales. On the one end, there are the countless black holes that are the remnants of massive stars. Peppered throughout the Universe, these "stellar mass" black holes are generally 10 to 24 times as massive as the Sun. Astronomers spot them when another star draws near enough for some of the matter surrounding it to be snared by the black hole's gravity, churning out x-rays in the process. Most stellar black holes, however, lead isolated lives and are impossible to detect. Judging from the number of stars large enough to produce such black holes, however, scientists estimate that there are as many as ten million to a billion such black holes in the Milky Way alone.

On the other end of the size spectrum are the giants known as "supermassive" black holes, which are millions, if not billions, of times as massive as the Sun. Astronomers believe that supermassive black holes lie at the center of virtually all large galaxies, even our own Milky Way. Astronomers can detect them by watching for their effects on nearby stars and gas.

Observed Mass Ranges of Compact Objects
This chart shows the relative masses of super-dense cosmic objects.

Historically, astronomers have long believed that no mid-sized black holes exist.  However, recent evidence from Chandra, XMM-Newton and Hubble strengthens the case that mid-size black holes do exist. One possible mechanism for the formation of supermassive black holes involves a chain reaction of collisions of stars in compact star clusters that results in the buildup of extremely massive stars, which then collapse to form intermediate-mass black holes. The star clusters then sink to the center of the galaxy, where the intermediate-mass black holes merge to form a supermassive black hole.


Recent Discoveries

Date Discovery
February 27, 2020 Record-Breaking Explosion by Black Hole Spotted (Ophiuchus Galaxy Cluster)
January 20, 2020 XMM-Newton Maps Black Hole Surroundings
January 6, 2020 Famous Black Hole Has Jet Pushing Cosmic Speed Limit (M87)
November 29, 2019 Black Hole or Newborn Stars?
November 26, 2019 Black Hole Nurtures Baby Stars a Million Light Years Away
September 26, 2019 TESS Mission Spots Its First Star-shredding Black Hole
September 25, 2019 Three Black Holes On Collision Course
September 11, 2019 Scientists Discover Black Hole Has Three Hot Meals a Day
August 8, 2019 Cloaked Black Hole Discovered in Early Universe (QSO PSO167-13)
July 24, 2019 How Black Holes Shape Galaxies (PG 1114+445)
August 8, 2019 Cloaked Black Hole Discovered in Early Universe (QSO PSO167-13)
July 24, 2019 How Black Holes Shape Galaxies (PG 1114+445)
July 11, 2019 Hubble Uncovers Black Hole Disk that Shouldn't Exist
July 3, 2019 X-rays Spot Spinning Black Holes Across Cosmic Sea
June 11, 2019 Magnetic Field May Be Keeping Milky Way’s Black Hole Quiet
April 25, 2019 The Giant Galaxy Around the Giant Black Hole
April 10, 2019 Chandra Captures X-rays in Coordination with Event Horizon Telescope
March 20, 2019 Giant ‘Chimneys’ Vent X-rays from Milky Way’s Core
March 14, 2019 Storm Rages in Cosmic Teacup (SDSS J1430+1339)
February 28, 2019 Galactic Bubbles Play Cosmic Pinball with Energetic Particles (NGC 3079)
January 30, 2019 NICER Mission Maps ‘Light Echoes’ of New Black Hole
January 9, 2019 Ricocheting Black Hole Jet (Cygnus A)
January 9, 2019 Shredded Star Leads to Important Black Hole Discovery
January 9, 2019 Astronomers Uncover the Brightest Quasar in the Early Universe
December 13, 2018 Cosmic Fountain Powered by Giant Black Hole
November 7, 2018 Astronomers Unveil Growing Black Holes in Colliding Galaxies
October 16, 2018 Magnetic Fields May Be the Key to Black Hole Activity
September 6, 2018 Cosmic Collision Forges Galactic One Ring -- in X-rays (AM 0644-741)
August 9, 2018 Finding the Happy Medium of Black Holes
July 12, 2018 Fermi Traces Source of Cosmic Neutrino to Monster Black Hole
June 21, 2018 'Red Nuggets' are Galactic Gold for Astronomers
June 18, 2018 Star Shredded by Rare Breed of Black Hole
June 15, 2018 Astronomers See Distant Eruption as Black Hole Destroys Star