Astronomy & Astrophysics 101: Black Hole

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Seen nearly edgewise, the turbulent disk of gas churning around a black hole takes on a crazy double-humped appearance. The black hole’s extreme gravity alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disk, producing the warped image. The black hole’s extreme gravitational field redirects and distorts light coming from different parts of the disk, but exactly what we see depends on our viewing angle. The greatest distortion occurs when viewing the system nearly edgewise. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman

Black holes are objects so dense, and with so much mass, that even light cannot escape their gravitational pull.

Black holes exist in different sizes. Stellar black holes, which are around the mass of our Sun, may form when very large stars explode as supernovae at the end of their lives. The star’s core collapses as the outer layers are blown away, leaving a small but extremely dense ball. Supermassive black holes, many millions of times the mass of our Sun, are of more mysterious origin, and are found at the center of galaxies. There are also intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH). These are smaller than the supermassive black holes that lie at the cores of large galaxies, but larger than the stellar-mass black holes formed by the collapse of massive stars. IMBHs are the long-sought “missing link” in black hole evolution and their mere existence is hotly debated, although a few candidates have been found.

Hubble discovers Black Holes in unexpected places. Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Black holes are objects so dense, and with so much mass, that even light cannot escape their gravitational pull. Credit: ESA/Hubble, EHT collaboration

In 2019 the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration produced the first-ever image of a black hole, lying at the center of the galaxy M87, 55 million light-years away. The image shows a bright ring with a dark center, which is the black hole’s shadow.