How Are Black Holes Detected?

Back in the 1780s, when Pierre Simon Laplace and John Michell first propounded the existence of ‘dark stars’ with tremendous gravitational fields, their hypothesis had very few takers. How could the audience believe in the existence of something that wasn’t visible in the first place?

Since so much of our scientific research, experimentation, analysis and even the most basic ideas of perception are based on our ability to see things, how do astronomers that talk about the transformation of black holes and supermassive black holes detect those invisible entities in the first place?

What are black holes?

Rendering of a Supermassive Black Hole

Rendering of a Supermassive Black Hole

Black holes are regions of space-time that have such a strong gravitational field that nothing, not even light, can escape them. You can read about black holes in detail here: What Are Black Holes And How Common Are They?

As the name signifies, a ‘black’ hole is essentially black, and in the vast darkness of space, it becomes invisible. So, how can we say for sure that a black hole exists at a certain location in space?

Behavior of neighboring objects

Suppose you know that an invisible man is in a room. Assuming that you don’t have any Batman-esque gadget at your disposal, what would be your best approach of determining his approximate position in the room? You would look for any signs of movement in any object in the room, such as a creak of the door, the twitch of the curtain, shuffling papers or shattering glass (if the invisible man is really clumsy).

Astronomers use a more technologically advanced version of the same technique – they observe and measure the unusual or inexplicable movements of stars and clusters of dust and gas around these invisible entities to predict the presence of black holes.

Here’s a 1-minute video from NASA that depicts how a black hole devours a neighboring star and reveals its location:

If a large star or a disk of gas or dust behaves as though it’s under the influence of something immensely dense and heavy (heavier than at least thrice the mass of sun), then it’s assumed that the motion is caused by a black hole. The features of the particular black hole, like its size and mass, are then determined by measuring the effects that it has on any neighboring bodies.

Andromeda active core

A disk of young, blue stars encircling a supermassive black hole in the Andromeda galaxy (Photo Credit : NASA / Wikipedia.org)

Emission of radiation

With such a high mass and gravitational field, neighboring stars or other bodies sometimes fall and funnel into a disk around black holes. These bodies then heat up to millions of degrees and swirl around the disk so fast that they heat up to incredible temperatures and emit X-rays. These rays, in turn, can be detected from the X-ray telescopes that we have back on Earth.

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory is one such orbiting X-ray telescope that has helped detect a number of black holes and given us a great deal of insight into their structural features.

recent discoveries of chandra observatory

Recent discoveries of the Chandra Observatory (Source: science.nasa.gov/astrophysics)

Gravity Lensing effect

Out of the many theories that originated from Einstein’s general theory of relativity, astronomers rely on the one that claims gravity can bend space. Therefore, if a cluster of stars or a galaxy passes near a black hole, a redistribution of matter occurs that causes light to bend as it travels to the observer, i.e. telescopes on Earth. This phenomenon is known as gravitational lensing, and plays a vital role in detecting black holes in space.

Blackhole gravitational lensing

A black hole distorting the image of a galaxy in the background through gravitational lensing (Photo credit : Wikipedia.org)

To conclude, black holes are not visible, per se, but the effect that they have on their neighbors is what helps us determine their position in the vast blackness of space.

References

  1. Chandra X-Ray Observatory / NASA
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Science.NASA
  4. Cool Cosmos / California Institute of Technology
The short URL of the present article is: http://sciabc.us/IsKgB
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About the Author:

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spends a lot of time watching movies, and an awful lot more time discussing them. He likes Harry Potter and the Avengers, and obsesses over how thoroughly Science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.

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