physics, Space, thought experiment

Houston, We Have Several Problems: Black Holes, Part 1

There aren’t many movies that I loved as a kid and can still stand to watch as a grownup. I remember loving Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t know if I could watch it now, because I’ve developed an irrational hatred of musical numbers. I certainly couldn’t watch that amazingly cheesy monster truck movie where the guy who drove Snakebite drugged the guy who drove Bigfoot. Apollo 13, though, aged well. It’s high on the list of my favorite space movies. Thanks to that movie (and the much weirder, but still pretty damn good Marooned), this vehicle is comfortably familiar to me:


(From Wikipedia.)

That there is the Apollo 15 command-service module. The command module (astronaut container) is the shiny cone at the front. Because I had cool parents, I got to go to the Johnson Space Center as a kid and see an actual command module, in person. As far as spacecraft go, it’s pretty small. If you stole one, you could hide it in your average garage. Now there‘s a good scene for a movie: some mad scientist with a stolen command module in his garage, tinkering with it while 80’s electronic montage music plays. Turning it into a time machine or something.

Once again, I imagine many of you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Don’t fret, there’s always (well, almost always) a method to my madness. Earlier today, I got thinking about the classic thought experiment: What would it be like to fall into a black hole. That thought experiment normally involves just dropping some hapless human (usually without even a spacesuit) right into one. You guys know me, though: if I’m going to do a weird thought experiment, I’m going to go into far more detail than necessary. That’s the fun part!

The point is, I’m going to start off my series on black holes by imagining what would happen if you dropped a pristine command module into black holes of various masses. The command module needs a three-person crew, and my crew will consist of myself, a young David Bowie, and Abraham Lincoln. Despite what you may think, no, I’m not on drugs. This is all natural, which, if you think about it, is much scarier.

A Mini Black Hole

As XKCD pointed out, a black hole with the mass of the Moon would not be a terribly dramatic-looking object. Even accounting for gravitational lensing, it would be next to impossible to see unless you were close to it, or you were looking really hard, or you had an X-ray/gamma-ray telescope. Nobody knows for sure whether black holes with masses this small actually exist. They might possibly have formed from the compression of the high-density plasma that filled the early universe, but so far, nobody’s spotted their telltale radiation.

But me, Bowie, and Lincoln are about to see one, and far too close.

At 1,700 kilometers, we’ve already gone from flying to falling. There’s nothing exciting happening, though, because as physicists always say, from a reasonable distance, a black hole’s gravitational field is no different from the gravitational field of a regular old object of the same mass. The tidal acceleration (which is the real killer when it comes to black holes) amounts to less than a millionth of a gee. Detectable, but only just.

At 100 kilometers, the tides are noticeable. Lincoln’s top-hat (which he foolishly left untethered. There wasn’t time to explain space flight and free-fall to a 19th-century politician) is slowly migrating to the end of the cabin. The tidal acceleration (the difference in pull between the center of the CM and either of its ends) is similar to the gravity of Pluto. The command module is stretching, but no more than, say, a 747 flexes in flight. Only detectable with fancy things like strain gauges.

At 10 km, we’re really motoring. Traveling at 31 kilometers per second, we’ve broken the record set by Apollo 10 for the fastest-moving humans. Bowie’s crazy Ziggy Stardust hair is getting misshapen by differential acceleration, which by now amounts to almost a full gee. Anything untethered (Lincoln’s hat, Bowie’s guitar, my cup of coffee, et cetera) is stuck at either end of the cabin.

At 5 km, we’re all shrieking in pain. The stray objects at the ends of the cabin are starting to get smashed. We’re all being stretched front-to-back (since that’s how you sit in a command module). The tides are pulling the command module like a rubber band, but a command module’s a compact and sturdy thing, so apart from some alarming creaking of metal, and maybe some cracking in the heat shield, it’s still in one piece.

All three of us die very quickly not long after the 2.5 km mark. Since the university still won’t let me use their finite-element physics package (well, more accurately, they won’t let me in the physics department…), I can only conjecture what will kill us, but it’ll either be the fact that the blood in our backs is being pulled toward the black hole much harder than the blood at our fronts (probably turning us very nasty colors and causing lots of horrible hemorrhages), or the fact that the command module has been stressed beyond its limits and sprung a leak. I’d wager the viewports would shatter before anything else happened, as their frames start to bend out of shape.

Time dilation hasn’t really kicked in, even by 500 meters, so an observer at a safe distance would see the CM crumple in real-time. The cone collapses like an umbrella being closed. Fragments of broken glass, shards of metal, control panels, shattered heat shield, and pieces of a legendary rocker, a melancholic President, and an idiot are spilling out of the wreckage.

By 10 meters, the command module is no longer falling straight down. It’s started falling inward, compressing side-to-side even as it stretches top-to-bottom. The individual components and fragments cast off from the wreck stretch and pull apart. Metal panels tear in two. Glass shards crack. Bits of flesh tear messily in half. The fragments divide and divide and divide. As they approach the event horizon, they explode into purple-white incandescent plasma: because the atoms are falling inward towards a point, they slam sideways into each other at high speeds. All 13,000 pounds of command module and crew either help bulk up the black hole, or form a radiant accretion disk denser than lead and smaller than a grape.

A 5-Solar-Mass Black Hole

In black hole thought experiments, the starting-point is usually a 1-solar-mass black hole. That makes sense: as far as astronomical objects go, the Sun is nicely familiar. But like I said before, scientists aren’t sure if there are any 1-solar-mass black holes anywhere in the Universe. As far as we know, all black holes in this mass range form from stars, and supernova leftovers smaller than something like 3 solar masses can still be supported by things like radiation pressure, degeneracy pressure, and the fact that atoms don’t like other atoms too close to them. In practice, there aren’t any known black hole candidates smaller than about 3 solar masses. There are a couple around 5 solar masses, and 5 is a nice round number, so that’s what I’m going with. We’re resetting this weird-ass experiment and dropping me, Bowie, and Lincoln into a stellar black hole.

At 380,000 kilometers (the distance from the Earth to the Moon), the tidal acceleration is detectable, but not noticeable. Good thing we’re free-falling (I should’ve made Tom Petty the third crewmember…), because if we were held stationary (say, by a magic platform hovering at a fixed altitude above the hole), we’d be flattened by a lethal 469-gee acceleration. Good thing, too, that we’re in an enclosed spacecraft: if the black hole has an accretion disk orbiting around it, we’re probably close enough that an unshielded human would be scalded to death by its heat, light, and X-rays. For our purposes, though, we’ll assume this black hole’s been floating through interstellar space for a long time, and has already cannibalized its own accretion disk, rendering it almost dark.

As we reach 10,000 km from the black hole, the same thing happens that happened with the mini black hole. David Bowie, who has gotten out of his seat to have a second tube of strawberry-banana pudding, finds it difficult to climb back to his couch against the gravity gradient. He’s being gently pelted by loose objects. Lincoln is just sitting in his couch looking very grave. I’m screaming my head off, so I miss all of this.

At 5,000 kilometers, the command module starts to creak. David Bowie is now stuck upside-down at the top of the cabin. I, having lost my shit and tried to open the hatch to end it quickly, have fallen to the bottom and broken my coccyx. Lincoln is still sitting in his couch looking very grave. We’re experiencing a total acceleration of over a million gees. If we tried to maintain a constant altitude, that million gees would turn us and the command module into a sheet of very thin and very gory foil. We’re moving almost as fast as the electrons shot from the electron gun of an old CRT TV.

Between 5,000 and 1,000 kilometers, the command module starts popping apart. It’s not as fast as the last time. First, the phenolic plastic of the heat shield cracks and pulls free of the insulation beneath. Then, the circular perimeter of the cone starts to crumple and wrinkle. (True story: the command module was built with crumple zones, just like a car, so that it didn’t pulp the astronauts too much when it hit the ocean at splashdown.) Not long after, the pressure hull finally ruptures, spewing white jets of gas and condensation in all directions like a leaky balloon. Then, the bottom of the pressure hull bursts. Think of a sledgehammer hitting a sheet of aluminum foil. All the guts of the command module spill out: wires, seats, guitars, apples (I was hungry), tophats, shoes, hoses, spare spacesuits, screaming idiots (I fell out). We’re moving 10% of the speed of light.

By 100 kilometers, the command module has spaghettified into a long stream of debris. The individual metal parts, although badly warped by being torn from their mountings, are mostly holding together, though they’re really starting to stretch. Anything softer is shattering/pulping/shredding. The black hole’s event horizon is the largest object in the sky: a fist-sized black disk of nothingness surrounded by a very pretty mandala of distorted stars and galaxies. It looks something like this:


(Screenshot from the unbelievably awesome (and free) program Space Engine.)

We can’t see it, though: we’re all dead.

By 25 kilometers, we’re just a stream of fine dust hurtling towards the event horizon at close to the speed of light. For an observer at a great distance, our disintegration proceeds in slow motion, both from the massive speed at which we’re traveling, and from the time-dilating effects of extreme gravity.

As we scream through 14.8 kilometers, we’ve almost reached the event horizon. The individual atoms the command module used to be made of are accelerating apart, spraying the whole CM into a narrow stream of plasma. Outside observers, though, just see the incandescent dust slow to a halt, change color from electric-arc purple to brilliant blue-white to the color of the sun to the color of hot steel to red-hot to black. What happens when we hit the singularity not long after is anybody’s guess. By definition, at a singularity, the equations you’re working with just quit making sense.

Sagittarius A*

There’s a very massive and very dense thing at the center of the Milky Way. It has about 3.6 million times the mass of the Sun, and because there’s a star (poetically called S0-102) that orbits pretty close to it (relatively speaking, anyway: its closest-approach distance is still larger than the distance from the Sun to Pluto), we know it has to be quite small, and therefore quite dense. According to our current understanding of physics, any mass like that would inevitably collapse into a black hole no matter what. The short version: it’s probably a black hole. (Note 1: as of this writing in November 2016, radio astronomers have finally committed to using a gigantic virtual telescope to take a picture of the actual event horizon in 2017, which is awesome) (Note 2: Though the actual mechanism for their formation isn’t known, some astrophysicists have done simulations suggesting that they formed from super-massive stars in the early universe. These days, the largest stars are a few hundred solar masses, with the largest stars for which we have firm evidence weighing around 120 solar masses. That’s massive, but not super-massive. These super-massive primordial stars contained thousands of solar masses. The one in that article massed 55,500. Some may have exceeded a million.)

Because a black hole (or, at least, its event horizon) is as compact as you can make anything, black holes tend to be really small compared to normal objects of similar mass. A Moon-mass black hole would look like a black dust-grain. An Earth-mass one would look like a pea. A Sun-mass one (and remember, there’s a lot of stuff in the Sun) would be the size of a small town. The 5-solar-mass hole we considered a second ago would be the size of a city. Sagittarius A*, though, containing so much mass, is actually a proper astronomical-sized object: 15 times larger than the Sun. If some deity with a really sick sense of humor replaced the Sun with Sgr A*, it would hang in the sky, a little smaller than a fist at arm’s length. We would also all be dead. For many reasons: no sunlight, radiation from the accretion disk, and the fact that we’d be orbiting so fast that grains of dust would heat the upper atmosphere lethally hot.

At 1 AU (the average distance from the Earth to the Sun), Sgr A*’s event horizon is much larger in the sky than the Moon. We’re accelerating at 1800 gees, but we don’t feel it, because we’re in free-fall. The tidal acceleration is minuscule: less than a micron per second per second. Once again, we’re pretending the black hole has no accretion disk, because if it did, its radiation would probably have incinerated us by now.

By the time we pass through Mercury’s orbit (0.387 AU) (assuming we actually are in this nightmarish black-hole solar system), we’re going one-third the speed of light, accelerating at over 15,000 gees. The tides are still detectable only by specialized instruments.

By 0.1 AU, we’re moving three-quarters the speed of light. David Bowie is singing “Space Oddity”, because I’ve smuggled a durian fruit onboard and threatened to cut it open if he doesn’t. Lincoln is starting to get sick of this shit, but this just gives him that same grave expression he has in all his photographs. The tides are detectable by instruments, but probably not by our human senses. Hitting a stationary dust particle the size of a bacterium unleashes a burst of light as bright as a studio flash.

At 0.071 AU, we pass through the event horizon without even realizing it. Falling into a black hole intact is a little like having a gigantic black bag closed around you: the event horizon already covers more than half of the sky, thanks to the fact that the black hole bends light toward the horizon. The sky shrinks into an ever-diminishing circle in a black void. The circle grows brighter and bluer with every passing second.

By 0.05 AU, stray objects are drifting to the ends of the cabin again: the tides are finally picking up. David Bowie is holding me down and punching me repeatedly, because he’s sick of me resurrecting him and killing him over and over. Lincoln is letting him do it, because frankly, I’ve cracked his statesman’s patience with my bullshit. We’re only 30 seconds from the singularity.

Even at 0.01 AU, the tides aren’t stretching the capsule. The effects might be palpable, but they’re nothing compared to what we’ve already been through in the previous experiments. We’re riding down a shaft of blue-shifted light, concentrated into a point straight overhead: everything that’s fallen into the hole recently can’t help but curve inward, until it’s falling almost ruler-straight towards the singularity.

At one Sun radius from the singularity, the differential acceleration is approaching one gee. Things are starting to get uncomfortable. David Bowie has stopped punching me, because he’s fallen to the top of the capsule again. Lincoln, though, still has the strength to pick up a pen and stab me in the sternum. He’s cursing at me, and as I start to bleed to death, I observe that Lincoln is much more creative with his swears than I would have given him credit for.

At 150,000 km, we start to get woozy on account of the blood in our bodies pooling in all the wrong places. We narrowly avoid a collision with Matthew McConaughey in a spacesuit, who has gone from muttering about quantum data to describing the peculiar aging patterns of high-school girls.

At 50,000 km, moving very, very nearly the speed of light, the command module finally starts to disintegrate. Seconds later, we spaghettify, just as before, and strike the singularity. And, once again, we run afoul of the fact that physicists have very little idea what happens that deep in a gravity well. For reference, at 100 meters from the singularity (and ignoring relativistic effects and pretending we can use the Newtonian equation for tides down here), the differential acceleration is measured with twenty-digit numbers. If the capsule were infinitely rigid and didn’t spaghettify, by the time its bottom touched the singularity, the tides would be measured in 25-digit numbers. If, somehow, we’d survived our trip to the singularity, we’d be accelerating so fast that, thanks to the Unruh effectempty space would be so hot we’d instantly vaporize.

And here’s where physics breaks down. If I’m reading this paper right, the distance between any point and the singularity is infinity, because space-time is so strongly curved near it.

Imagine that space is two-dimensional. It contains two-dimensional stars with two-dimensional mass. That curves two-dimensional space into a three-dimensional manifold. The gravity well (technically, the metric) around a very dense (but non-black-hole) looks roughly like this:


(From Wikipedia.)

If you measure the circumference of the object, you can calculate its diameter: divide by two times pi. But when you measure its actual diameter, you’ll find it’s larger than that, because of the way strong gravitation stretches spacetime. In the case of a black hole, spacetime looks more like this:


(From the paper cited above.)

The cylindrical part of the trumpet is (if I’m understanding this correctly) infinitely long. The “straight-line” distance through the black hole, on a line that just barely misses the singularity, is much larger than you’d expect. But the distance through the black hole, measured on a line that hits the singularity is infinite. All lines that hit the singularity just stop there.

But, to be honest, I really don’t know what it’d be like down there. Nobody does. The first person to figure out what gravity and particle physics do under conditions like that will probably be getting a shiny medal from some Swedes.


7 thoughts on “Houston, We Have Several Problems: Black Holes, Part 1

  1. “…the distance between any point and the singularity is infinity, because space-time is so strongly curved near it…”
    Contemplating this.
    Great article, great graphics and explanations. Eager to read Part II! Shared!

    Best to you,


  2. Pingback: Houston, We Have Several Problems: Black Holes, Part 1 « Sputnik's Orbit

  3. Pingback: Spin to Win | Black Holes, Part 2 | Sublime Curiosity

  4. Pingback: Hypothetical Nightmares | Black Holes, Part 3 | Sublime Curiosity

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