Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What Is a Black Hole, Really?

A black hole is a celestial object of such extremely intense gravity that it attracts everything near it and prevents everything, including light, from escaping. The term was first used in reference to a star in the last phases of gravitational collapse.

Gravitational collapse begins when a star has depleted its steady sources of nuclear energy and can no longer produce the expansive force, a result of normal gas pressure, that supports the star against the compressive force of its own gravitation. In some cases, nothing remains to prevent the star from collapsing without limit to an indefinitely small size and infinitely large density, to create a black hole.

At this point the effects of Einstein's general theory of relativity become paramount. According to this theory, space becomes curved in the vicinity of matter (this is the meaning of gravity); the greater the concentration of matter, the greater the curvature (the greater the gravity). When the star shrinks below a certain size determined by its mass, the extreme curvature of space seals off contact with the outside world. The place beyond which no radiation can escape even not light.

It is now believed that the origin of some black holes is nonstellar. Some astrophysicists suggest that immense volumes of interstellar matter can collect and collapse into supermassive black holes, such as are found at the center of some galaxies.

Because light and other forms of energy and matter are permanently trapped inside a black hole, it can never be observed directly. However, a black hole could be detected by the effect of its gravitational field on nearby objects (e.g., if it is orbited by a visible star), during the collapse while it was forming, or by the X rays and radio frequency signals emitted by rapidly swirling matter being pulled into the black hole. A small number of possible black holes have been detected, although none of the discoveries has been conclusive.

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