Everything You've Ever Wondered About Black Holes

If you managed to stay awake in astronomy class, or if you saw that fairly decent Matthew McConaughey movie, you're familiar with black holes by now. These interstellar vacuum cleaners have such an insanely strong gravitational pull that anything that gets sucked inside has no chance of ever escaping. Our understanding of black holes has increased dramatically since Einstein made them a thing in 1915, but they remain some of the most mysterious and powerful phenomena in the known universe. Here are 10 things you probably didn't know about them.

1. They’re completely invisible

There’s a reason black holes are called black. Their gravity is so intense not even light can escape, so without any light emissions, they're impossible to observe. We can, however, see some of the effects that this extreme gravity has on objects nearby.

2. You’re most likely orbiting one right now

The reason our celestial home, the Milky Way galaxy, looks kind of like water swirling down a drain is that, well, there is a drain. It’s called Sagittarius A* and all evidence suggests that it’s a super-massive black hole, right in the center of the galaxy.

3. They form from the remnants of massive exploding stars

When a big star (and by big I mean many, many times larger than the size of our sun) dies, it explodes violently in a supernova. The star's core is left to collapse in on itself, and if that core is massive enough, there will be nothing to stop it from collapsing into a spot of infinite density. And that, kids, is how black holes are born.

4. They come in all different sizes

Astronomers hypothesize that they can range from micro black holes with masses as low as 22 micrograms, to super-massive objects with masses 40 billion (no that's not a typo) times that of our sun.

5. Black holes eat stars for breakfast

With their inescapable gravitational pull, anything that drifts too close will be devoured, including stars.

6. They fire off powerful jets of plasma

Sometimes a black hole tries to eat too much matter at once, and it produces some blowback. Imagine trying to fill a tiny bucket with a powerful firehose. Similarly, the black hole shoots off huge plasma streams called relativistic jets, which can reach hundreds of thousands of light years in length.

7. They make Quasars, the brightest objects in the universe

Quasars are the most energetic and luminous objects in the known universe. The Quasar known as S5 0014+81 is 300 trillion times brighter than the sun, or 25,000 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined. And it generates all that power by feeding off the energy of a super-massive black hole, found in the center of every Quasar.

8. A black hole isn’t a hole at all

It’s a sphere. And, at least as far as we know, there are no tunnels to alternate realities either. We’re looking at you, Matthew McConaughey.

9. They're powerful enough to alter time itself...

The gravity well of a black hole is so intense that time itself moves slower (relative to an outside observer) the nearer you get to the event horizon.

10. ... and collapse the laws of physics

Inside a black hole, for all intents and purposes, space and time no longer exist. Zero volume, infinite density, you get the idea.

David Burbach rides motorcycles for a living and won the science award in sixth grade. Find him lame-o tweeting @welivefreephoto.

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