What is a Black Hole, Really?

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve probably seen these in movies. And I’m guessing you’ve heard a lot about them in pop culture. The problem is, pop culture and movies don’t do a very good job of describing black holes.

First off, let me clear up a common misconception: Black holes do not act like giant space vacuum cleaners, sucking in everything around them. Describing them as “gobbling up” anything is inaccurate.

The representation in movies that bugs me the most is in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, when the bad guy falls into a black hole and the good guys almost get pulled in with him. First of all, please…black holes do not growl. And basically none of what happens in that scene is accurate.

So…what are black holes, really?

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Unique Neutron Stars

Neutron stars—the compact remains of massive stars that have gone supernova—are some of the most extreme objects in the universe, narrowly beaten by black holes (and, as we’ll talk about in future posts, active galaxies and such).

Dense balls of pure neutron material with diameters barely larger than Los Angeles, neutron stars have strong magnetic fields that produce beams of radiation at the magnetic poles. Their speedy rotation makes these beams sweep across the sky like a lighthouse.

When one of their beams crosses directly over Earth, human astronomers observe rapid pulses of light called pulsars.

These objects are whacky, to say the least. And there’s more…

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Binary Neutron Stars

Way back when we spent a number of posts surveying the stars, we covered binary systems. These are star systems that contain multiple stars. Imagine if our sun had a companion, and two stars rose and set in our sky over the cycle of day and night.

It might surprise you that the majority of stars in the universe are actually in binary systems. Our solar system seems to be an outlier in that regard. Most stars have a companion or two or six…

…and so do some neutron stars.

Remember that neutron stars are the collapsed remnants of massive stars that have gone supernova. If most stars are part of binary systems, then naturally, some of these stars will evolve into neutron stars and still be part of their birth system.

Not all neutron stars are still part of their birth system. As I covered in my last post, many neutron stars rocket through space at incredible velocities, leaving their birth system behind.

Those that stay, though, provide astronomers with fascinating insight into the nature of neutron stars.

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