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Travel to a Black Hole!

Downcast with the winter blues?


Looking around for something exciting to do for your next holiday?

What about a trip into Space?

You wouldn’t be the first to go

The year . . . 2001 . . . The event . . . the first tourist flies into space …

Richard Garriott, a developer of computer games, blasted off into space to spend 12 days in orbit as a tourist aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft – a spaceship much like the Sputnik satellite which first orbited the Earth in 1961. The trip cost him $35 million. Not exactly your average package deal! However, prices are coming down. The company XCOR Aerospace is planning to sell hour-long trips up to space for a mere $95,000 per person. And the commercial space flight industry is growing!

Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, plans to fly spaceplanes which will offer regular, scheduled, affordable flights to space destinations. The carrier will start by offering day-trips “to the edge of space”, which is 100 km above the Earth . . . and of course, back again. Such day-trips will offer tourists the experiences of a lifetime – from the blackness of space to weightlessness to stunning views of our ‘blue’ planet as we’ve never seen it before!

Not only is Virgin building a fleet of spaceships, it also has plans to build a space hotel within the next 20-30 years.

Would you go?

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration “conceptually, tens of millions of us would like to take a trip to space if we could do so with reasonable safety, comfort and reliability, and at an acceptable price.”

While you decide – bearing in mind that there are plenty of great places on Earth you could choose to visit instead – here’s an idea of what it was like to take a trip on the Shuttle. This description is based on reports filed by Space Shuttle astronauts.


The LIFT-OFF Experience …

You’re strapped in your seat. The countdown is ticking away T minus 10, T minus 9, T minus 8 … there are bumps and noises … T minus 7, lift-off is seconds away. T minus 6, the main engines ignite and the entire shuttle vibrates … and then … well, here’s how one astronaut describes it:

“At T minus 0 the Solid Rocket Boosters ignite and the Shuttle is released. The noise and vibration increase and you feel the acceleration skyward. However, the ascent is not so violent that you cannot communicate through the headset.”

A few minutes later the booster rockets burn out and are jettisoned.

“When they leave, you see a flash of light in the windows from the small rockets that push the boosters away. Then the ride smooths out as the Main Engines alone continue to push us “uphill.” At this point the acceleration reaches its maximum of 3 g – 3 times the force of Earth’s gravity – and stays there until Main Engine Cut-off.”

. . .    and about nine minutes later . . .

. . .    you’re ‘in space’ . . .

(which officially begins 100km above the Earth’s surface)

What to do when you get there . . .

So you’re up in space. Now what?

First-up, take a look at the view. You could look outwards, into space, but according to most astronauts, you get the biggest buzz when you look down on the Earth … and especially when you catch a glimpse of your own home! Here’s how Australian astronaut, Andy Thomas, describes it:

“Australia is magical because it’s this deep, deep red colour. You see it after you’ve travelled across the ocean which is deep, deep blue. There’s this red, red land which is Australia and as you go across the centre you see the deserts, the salt lakes and then as you come further east down towards Victoria, you see all the green landforms and it gets very fresh and very lush.”

Mind you, your view of your home town would only last moments. A space craft in orbit crosses the sky in just a couple of minutes and orbits the entire planet in just an hour and a half.

Now what?

So you’ve admired the view. What else is there to do?

According to Donald Payne, an astrophysics student at the University of Melbourne, you could easily spend the first day of your holiday exploring ‘microgravity’. Microgravity is the floating feeling you get when you’re in orbit.

“It would be fascinating just to touch a wall and see how that makes you float off”, says Donald. You could also play tricks on yourself. Apparently, your brain tells you that whichever way your feet point is ‘down’. So if you turn yourself ‘upside down’, you’d suddenly feel as if the ceiling was now the floor!”

What’s the down-side?

Few holidays come without drawbacks. In this case the down-side has to be space sickness!! Just as a boat-trip can be ruined by a spate of sea-sickness, your trip into space may begin badly with a bout of space-sickness. Luckily the nausea usually wears off within a couple of days, once you’ve found your space-legs, as it were. As for exactly what causes it, scientists still aren’t sure, and it’s one of the things that is routinely investigated whenever a crew go into space.

The bottom line . . .

The bottom line has to be the cost. If the price can be brought down to something we can all afford (scientists are already working on much cheaper ways to propel a rocket into space) then I predict that the queue for the travel agent would be … er … astronomic. Will it happen in our lifetimes? Who knows, but here’s hoping.

Edge of space not far enough?

. . .  fancy a journey to a black hole?


Okay, you’ve been and done the International Space Station and that part of space near our planet, and it now feels much the same as going on holiday to Blackpool or Brighton. You thirst for more exotic places like Thailand, New Zealand or California . . . only much farther out there – in space. How about visiting a black hole? What would that be like? Where exactly would you find one? Which would be the nearest? How long would it take? How safe would it be? How close could you get to a black hole without fear of being swallowed up?

. . . and . . . bottom line – how much would it cost?

We can’t travel to a black hole yet, but that doesn’t stop us thinking about how it could be done. I’m sure sailors in Columbus’ day, adrift at sea for weeks on end, must have gazed up at the full Moon as it lit up the night sky, and wondered what it would be like to travel to the Moon and how it could be done!

What exactly IS a Black Hole?

A black hole is an area in space where so much mass has concentrated that its gravitational force stops anything from escaping, even light. Some black holes rotate, while others don’t.

A black hole has a boundary – called the event horizon – which is sphere-shaped and separates it from the rest of the universe. The event horizon of a black hole is quite different from other boundaries, such as surfaces of solids or liquids. Just as soon as any material crosses the event horizon and it enters the black hole, it ceases to exist. So, even if by some magic, we could travel to the event horizon, we wouldn’t be able to see into the black hole, because no electromagnetic radiation can escape from it. What we know about the structure of black holes comes from Einstein’s equations of relativity and the latest results from the Hubble space Telescope!

Astrophysicists have identified three types of black holes:

1) Stellar black holes – known as garden-variety black holes because they are found strewn all over most galaxies. We think these form when the heavy centre of a star collapses in on itself crushed by its own gravity. The mass of such ‘stellar’ black holes can be anything from 3 to 10 times the mass of our sun, but squashed down to a miniscule point, called a singularity.

2) Supermassive black holes are so massive that they give new meaning to the word astronomical! These are the monster-sized black holes. The mass of a supermassive black hole can be millions or billions of times the mass of our Sun – making our Sun seem like a speck of dust. Steve Nadis, writing in Astronomy says that astronomers have been left “shaking their heads, wondering how these objects – once seen as novelty items or the stuff of science fiction – may be commonplace, dominating the core of possibly every large galaxy in the universe”. University of Mitchigan astrophysicist Douglas Richstone suggests that “if black holes are an integral part of galaxy formation, that could require a major revision of our theories”. The ‘chicken-or-egg’ question astronomers are now left pondering is: what came first – black holes or galaxies? Or . . . could they have evolved together?  . . . watch this space!

3) Intermediate black holes sized somewhere in-between stellar and supermassive black holes, i.e. anywhere from 100 to 1000 times the mass of our Sun, are being investigated by a team led by Dr. Jon Miller at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. At the moment Miller is trying to determine the masses of three suspected intermediate black holes. “Evidence is mounting that these elusive intermediate mass black holes may really exist,” Miller said. “The mystery, really, is how they can exist.”

Milky Way monster

At the very heart of our galaxy there exists a source of colossal energy shining like a billion Suns! Its mass is greater than a million suns and it occupies a space about the size of Jupiter’s orbit, which, relatively speaking, that’s pretty small!!  Most astronomers now agree that this source of incredible energy is probably a supermassive black hole, which relentlessly pulls in any star matter close to it. As the gases and dust are sucked towards the black hole, heat is generated and the energy we see is produced.

Suppose you could travel (in an imaginary spaceship) towards the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way, the concentration of stars would increase enormously the closer you got to it, until, that at a distance of around 1000 light years away (9.5 x 10 to the power of 15 km, give or take a km) from the centre of the Milky Way, you would see about a million stars in the ‘night’ sky and night time would be as bright as daytime!

The ultimate corpses?

In the 1490s, Christopher Columbus must’ve felt about journeying to the Far East something like the way we feel about travelling to a black hole today. Like him, we just need to look for a short-cut! Ah! But remember Columbus’ short-cut to the Far East and how it turned out to be totally NOT a short-cut at all?! The thing about short-cuts is that you don’t actually know if something is a short-cut, until you test it!

With black holes now known to be abundant in the universe – located in the centres of possibly most galaxies, the drive to learn more about them is on the increase. But, could we ever actually travel to a black hole? The short answer is: only in our imaginations at the moment – they’re not known as the ultimate corpses for nothing!

This is NGC 1068 – one of the nearest and brightest galaxies that we think contains a fast-growing supermassive black hole.

NGC 1068 is located about 50 million light years away from the Earth and contains a supermassive black hole probably about twice as big as the one we think lies at the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory seems to indicate that supermassive black holes might be able to change the evolution of its host galaxy, i.e.  supermassive black holes might be able to alter the shape of the galaxy they lie at the centre of.


Activity 1: A short story.

Write a short story about the first journey to a black hole.

Plan it first.

Include a mixture of scientifically accurate information as well as pure fiction – but make sure YOU know which is which! (let your imagination go!)

At the end, make a list of the things in your story that were not scientifically accurate with the knowledge scientists have today. Say which of these things do you think scientists will find answers to in the future and which do you think are pure fiction and impossible to accomplish.

Activity 2: What's it like 'living' in space?

The NASA website gives loads of amazing information about living in space, e.g. what the physiological effects might be for people living in space over a period of months or years – effects such as:

• space motion sickness
• fluid shift – fluid shifts from the lower to upper body – giving a puffy feeling especially in the face and hands
• cardiovascular de-conditioning
• decrease in red blood cell mass
• mineral losses and bone loss in the lower extremities
• temporary loss of sense of balance
• a significant increase in the urinary excretion of calcium
• significant nitrogen and phosphorus loss, presumably associated with muscle tissue loss (atrophy)
• muscle loss – especially in the legs


Work in pairs. Choose ONE possible effect of living in space and prepare to give a 5-10 minute talk  about it. (can use ppt / poster presentation / etc)

Activity 3: A space travel brochure.

Design a space tourism brochure, offering information on:

• How you will travel.
•  Departure and return dates.
• What your accommodation, living conditions and meals will be like.
• What you should pack to wear.
• Sightseeing – describe at least 5 ‘sights’ in detail.
• Health warning – what are the possible health risks?
• Cost.

The brochure should be attractively presented (show off all your computer skills!), including photos and accurate information.

A Prehistoric Black Hole

This artist’s conception illustrates one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a young, star-rich galaxy.

© 2011 FaradaySchools