Stellar Evolution Demystified

Whaddya know…after what seems like a geological age, we’re finally done with stellar evolution! And we’ve covered a truly ridiculous amount of information.

We’ve covered a star’s relatively gentle, humble beginnings within the collapsing cores of giant molecular clouds (or GMCs). We’ve explored how stars begin fusing hydrogen nuclei for fuel and how their interiors work.

We’ve covered how they evolve across the main sequence, and how they eventually exhaust their fuel, lose stability, and expand into giants.

We’ve delved into the way low- and medium-mass stars quietly expel their atmospheres and shrink into inert balls of carbon called white dwarfs. And we’ve watched as massive stars burst apart in brilliant supernova explosions and then collapse into some of the most extreme objects in the universe, neutron stars and black holes.

Those three end states–white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes–are known as compact objects, and we’ve explored them too.

If it all seems super complicated…I understand. But now, just as I did once with types of stars, I’m going to give you an overview to put it all together.

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How to Find a Black Hole

Okay, good question. How the heck do you find an object that emits no radiation? Astronomers find—and study—just about everything in the universe using the radiation it emits or reflects. So…what happens when the object we’re looking for has such a strong gravitational pull that even light can’t escape?

Well, that’s when we need to turn to the theoretical science behind black holes. What measurable effects do they have on objects in their vicinity? Can we detect them indirectly?

Of course, some of you might be screaming at me that we’ve already photographed a black hole—in visual wavelengths! Yes, astronomers did make that achievement—we now have visual proof that what we’ve been theorizing all along is indeed real.

But that black hole was so faint, it took an interferometer the size of the Earth to image. We had to know exactly where to look in order to get that picture.

So how the heck do we find one in the first place?

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Black Holes: What the Movies Get Wrong

Any of you recognize this?

To those who don’t, it probably looks like a pretty unimpressive, blurry ring. In fact, this is the first ever image of a black hole, taken with an interferometer the size of the Earth.

If you’re a science geek, you’ve no doubt seen tons of artists’ conceptions of black holes on the internet. Most use a great deal of artistic license. Some of my favorite “images” of black holes used to be the ones that look like ripples in the fabric of space. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that’s not the case at all.

Black holes are singularities—infinitely dense places of zero radius with at least 3 M (solar masses) of star stuff—surrounded by an event horizon, inside of which gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape. That’s why it’s called a black hole.

But they are not “holes” in the usual sense. They are not giant space potholes that you can easily stumble into, and you certainly don’t fall into them the same way you would a pothole.

So…what are black holes really like?

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