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Black Holes

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Black Holes - Black and Red: the colors of gravity...

Black holes are amongst the universe's family of anomalies that we've just recently begun to understand in the recent decades. The term black hole was laid to claim by John Wheeler in 1969, yet the theory dates back over 200 years. In 1783, John Michell wrote a paper declaring that a star that was massive enough would have a gravitational influence so strong that light would not be able to escape its surface. He also believed there were a number stars like this in the universe, but because light could not escape their gravity they would just be black voids in space. Michell also conjectured that even though we could not see the stars' light we could feel their gravitational influence. It took 200 years before Michells theories could be put to the test, but it came.

Of course Re won the battle each and every day, to shine his rays onto the fertile lands surrounding the river Nile, bringing food and prosperity to the realm. It's not surprising that the most important god of Egypt was the sun, source of all wealth. The Pharaohs didn't take on the name and depiction of Re for no reason. The sun was the embodiment of life AND eternal life. But how eternal is the life of the sun really?

A relatively small star

The expected life span of our sun is about 14 billion years. The sun is about one-third through that time, and can be compared to a human being in her late twenties, still full of strength and vigor.

In order to understand black holes, one must understand the life process of a star. Stars form when a large quantity of interstellar gas - mainly hydrogen atoms - begins to contract due to self-gravity. The colliding atoms begin heating up as they collide at greater rates and at high velocities. Eventually, the collapse gets so hot that the atoms no longer repel off of each other, but fuse together into helium atoms. This is called thermonuclear fusion. Eventually, the heat produced from these collisions counters the contraction of gravity and a star is formed. Stephen Hawking's analogy works great: "It is a bit like a balloon - there is a balance between the pressure of the air inside, which is trying to make the balloon expand, and the tension in the rubber, which is trying to make the balloon smaller." Inevitably, the star will run out of nuclear fuel and will no longer be able to melee with gravity. Thus, gravity wins the war and the star is doomed to collapse; but it isn't necessarily doomed to a collapse so severe it creates a black hole.

black hole space death of star

How will the sun die eventually?

During the next billion years or so, the sun will become brighter by 10%. This will heat up our planet as a result of a severe greenhouse effect. All of the oceans on earth will vaporize and all life will be destroyed.  After another 5.5 billion years the sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel located in the core, and then it will start using up the hydrogen from the layers surrounding the core.

This will cause the sun to swell like a big balloon. 2.5 billion years later the sun will have become about 100 times bigger than its present size. By this point it has swallowed Mercury, Venus and very probably the Earth in the process of expansion. At that moment we call the sun a Red Giant.    

The sun's exhaust gas, helium - generated through nuclear fusion - will serve as the sun's new fuel, when it has devoured all of its hydrogen. The standard hydrogen core can reach temperatures as hot as 100 million degrees, while a helium core can reach up to 600 million degrees. The temperatures increase and the fuel runs out quicker. The transition from a G2 star (our sun) to a Red Giant is roughly 160 million years. On the cosmic scale that's quite fast. The lifespan of a Red Giant is only 1 billion years, compared to our sun's 10 billion years.

Once all the sun's helium is consumed it will then eject enormous amounts of matter into space. After it ejects its surface layers, the sun will then cool down and contract to be an object with a very high density, but only a few thousand miles in radius. We call this object a White Dwarf. A teaspoon of white dwarf material would weigh five-and-a-half tons or more on Earth. Yet a white dwarf can contract no further; its electrons resist further compression by exerting an outward pressure that counteracts gravity.  This balance between gravity and outward pressure, called electron degeneracy pressure, is the reason why stars do not explode very soon after birth. Effectively the sun is now around its dying years.

Shrinking Star

White dwarfs are very common objects in the universe.Most of them are very dim and invisible to our eye and telescopes. A very famous one is Sirius B. Astronomer W.Bessel was the first to suspect that Sirius had an invisible companion when he observed that the path of the star wobbled. In the 1920's it was determined that Sirius B, the companion of Sirius, was a "white dwarf" star. The pull of its gravity caused Sirius's wavy movement.

shrinking star siruis

Here is an X-ray image of the Sirius star system located 8.6 light years from Earth. This image shows two sources and a spike-like pattern due to the support structure for the transmission grating. The bright source is Sirius B, a white dwarf star that has a surface temperature of about 25,000 degrees Celsius which produces very low energy X-rays.

The dim source at the position of Sirius A - a normal star more than twice as massive as the sun - may be due to ultraviolet radiation from Sirius A leaking through the filter on the detector. The picture was taken with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Since its launch on July 23, 1999, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has been NASA's flagship mission for X-ray astronomy, taking its place in the fleet of "Great Observatories."

The picture to the bottom right shows the same star system, now through a 'normal' visible light telescope, to show exactly how small Sirius B is compared to Sirius A, which is about 1.6 times the size of our own sun, but 22 times the luminosity of our sun. Sirius B has a luminosity of 1/400 of our sun, making it very dim.

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