How to Escape from a Black Hole

There are ways out of the gravitational death grip of a black hole — but it's not easy

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Avery E. Broderick/University of Waterloo/Perimeter Institute

Black holes have a bit of an image problem. That’s to be expected from an immense remnant of a stellar explosion with billions of times the mass of the sun and a gravitational pull so powerful, not even light can escape. Anything that ventures too close gets swallowed whole, never to be seen again. Or so the popular thinking goes. But there’s a dramatic exception to that ironclad rule: all over the cosmos, galaxies with black holes at their center produce powerful energy jets, or blasts of superheated gas and dust that erupt from the very matter swirling down into the hole and travel outward for hundreds of thousands of light-years.

Astronomers have cataloged thousands of such energy jets over the decades, but what they’ve never been able to figure out is what powers them. How can material that effectively circles the galactic drain suddenly wrest itself free, and with such titanic force? Now, thanks to a study by an international team of astrophysicists that was published in the journal Science, there appears to be an answer — one that helps explain not only how the galactic pyrotechnics are produced but also how galaxies themselves grow and expand.

(MORE: A Just-Right Black Hole Fills a Cosmic Void)

What astronomers — with a little help from Albert Einstein — already understand is that every black hole is surrounded by what’s called an event horizon, a threshold at which matter reaches a point of no return. It may be impossible to see the black hole itself, but with the right instruments you can detect the matter at the last moment before it disappears and, in effect, measure and mark the presence of the hole by the very absence it produces. Material at the event horizon forms a so-called accretion disk, a concentrated swirl of dust and gas that orbits the hole at nearly the speed of light, gradually feeding itself inward. It’s at that point that, well, something happens to produce the jets. But what?

(PHOTOS: Window on Infinity: Pictures from Space)

To find out, a team led by Sheperd Doeleman, an astrophysicist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, focused on a jet bursting from a black hole at the center of the M87 elliptical galaxy, 54 million light-years from the Milky Way. That jet, studied since the early 1900s and among the closest within viewing range, also happens to emanate from a black hole with a highly visible event horizon — mostly because M87 ranks among the sky’s brightest deep-space objects, meaning there are plenty of light emissions reflecting off the debris in the accretion disk.

That doesn’t mean the disk can be studied with any detail, however. Black holes are very small objects on a cosmic scale, and 58 million light-years is still 58 million light-years. To sharpen their resolution, Doeleman and his team thus used a method known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), in which multiple radio telescope dishes collect wave emissions from different perspectives and later align them into measurement data, much as the mirror and lens on a standard telescope aligns light waves into an image. “It’s a specialized thoroughbred technique which gives us the highest amount of detail of anything available to astronomers,” says Doeleman. For their study, they used data from radio dishes in Arizona, California and Hawaii, combining them in such a way that the observatories acted as a single, massive instrument with a resolution 2,000 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope. That revealed a lot.

(MORE: The Blackest Black Hole: Scientists Find a Monster the Size of 21 Billion Suns)

M87′s event horizon, the researchers learned, is about the size of our solar system. The matter that produces the jets appears to come from an orbital position near the innermost edge of the accretion disk, about 5.5 times as distant as the horizon itself. That seems remote, but according to Einstein’s gravitational theories, it’s the last possible point at which matter can move in a stable orbit, because space time is distorted near a black hole. It’s also the birthing ground for the jets, possibly because magnetic fields embedded in the material that’s circling near the hole become twisted, carrying energy away in the form of an electromagnetic blast that is filled with charged particles — the very charged particles that emit the radio waves the scientists collected from Earth for their study.

The M87 jet’s tight orbit fits only one theoretical model of black-hole dynamics, one that suggests that gravity from the swirling accretion disk can rotate a black hole over time, causing both to spin in the same direction and drawing the innermost orbit into the range where the astronomers found the M87 jet. That supports years of conjecture that black holes are anything but motionless. Says Doeleman: “The black hole has to be spinning to explain those measurements.”

Although the study centers on a single jet, the ramifications extend across the galaxy, since the energy blasts broadly distribute matter and energy, feeding and disrupting star formation. Astronomers therefore hope their next look at the jets’ launch pad will be even more detailed. They plan on expanding their telescope array to include radio dishes worldwide, increasing the sensitivity of their virtual telescope by a factor of 10 and possibly leading to images rather than just measurements. As good as the high-speed energy jets are at escaping black holes, avoiding astronomers’ prying eyes will — with luck — prove much more difficult.

PHOTOS: Snapshots of the Heavens: Amazing Astronomy Images

MORE: Scientists Hear a Star’s ‘Screams’ as It’s Devoured by a Black Hole

101 comments
JesseSmith
JesseSmith

....that's not the definition of "event horizon". These Time "science" articles contain some pretty piss poor research. Wow.

Simon
Simon

"Material at the event horizon forms a so-called accretion disk, a

concentrated swirl of dust and gas that orbits the hole at nearly the

speed of light, gradually feeding itself inward".

Why is it that an "accretion DISK" forms, rather than an "accretion SPHERE". The former implies that all approaching matter arrives at the event horizon from random directions all aligned along one plane, whilst I would have thought that in three dimensional space, matter may be pulled toward the event horizon from any direction with (fairly) equal probability. Is the use of the term "disk" a flaw in the description caused by two dimensional thinking, or is some gravitational effect coming into play that aligns matter approaching from any direction into one plane as it reaches a certain point from the singularity - and if so, what?

Anyone...anyone...???

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Is it possible that the black hole at the center of M87 is a binary black hole that could account for the observed behavior?

Vincent Wolf
Vincent Wolf

There is no escape from the black hole that Obama has created with $16 trillion in debt.

rbonilla
rbonilla

how to escape from a black a-hole...........vote for Mitt in November !!!

Danyz
Danyz

Good to know in the event of a Romney victory...

indifferent07
indifferent07

Remember what your father told you...."Always keep fresh batteries in your flashlight"

abigchocoholic
abigchocoholic

If I understand it correctly, the jet is in the accretion disks which is outside the event horizon?  So kind of like some dough being thrown off the spinning mixer?   Do they know what percent gets thrown back out v. what gets sucked in? 

hektorsolisjr
hektorsolisjr

why study a blackhole 54MLY away, when we have our own in theMilkyWay?? 

Dick Perry
Dick Perry

Make sure you use the proper amount of lube before entering the black hole...

Patrick O'Halaran
Patrick O'Halaran

Soooooo, how exactly do I escape that black hole?  Do I have to ride on the high pressure jet or do I get in it?  Seriously, I have lost a lot of friends to black hole's and I would like to know how to protect myself.

Peter Charette
Peter Charette

"there are plenty of light emissions reflecting off of the debris in the accretion disk".... The author of this article needs to go back to science class and learn the difference between emitting and reflecting.

Lee Ray
Lee Ray

When I clicked on the link to read this article, I was hoping it would only say: "You can't".

Nebula77
Nebula77

How to escape from a Black Hole?  Get a good divorce attorney. 

mlpnko123
mlpnko123

Wow, I know it is hard to write complex concepts in astrophysics so laymen can understand but this author needs to learn some physics and more importantly the history of physics.  

Yes Einstein developed the theory of relativity.  No Einstein did not postulate black holes (John Michell) or detail their event horizons (Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar).

No accretion disk dynamics is not a new idea.  It was 2 semesters worth of coursework in my astronomy undergraduate major 10 years ago.

The current research describes 1 possible mechanism that generates disruptions in existing accretion disks, leading to periodic events where some mass from the disk falls into the hole and some is flung out (thereby angular momentum of the system being preserved).  The idea that the black hole would have to be rotating to produce non-spherical jets is first-year undergraduate astrophysics, not a new conclusion of the current research.

Earl Krupert
Earl Krupert

What Black hole??

 You ever rally saw one..? Anyone ever saw one?? Nope....Because there is no such thing... These guys always seem to fail to mention that Black holes are only a THEORY! You guys really need to go back and try to explain what the hell Banged with the Big Bang...

Bottom line... If the universe is nearly as big as you guys say it is, your very limited, narrow, untested, guesses made by only one species on one planet, with no other respective to compare denotes that you know very little information about a universe that you've only seen from one place using the very limited and quite primitive, means of men on earth.

Joe Golden
Joe Golden

So try to get to the JEt...and hope you come out in one piece?..

hmmm..I'll opt for just staying away from black holes if at all possible...

mokicat2
mokicat2

I'm pretty sure, I'm probably never going to need to do this. 

AA
AA

The reason it is called an Accretion Disk is because the matter that is being drawn into the black hole orbits it getting closer closer while speeding up as it does.  This ever increasing speed tends to "flatten out" the stream of matter so it forms a "disk".

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

You are right with respect to the INCOMING matter. It DOES come in from all over, evenly, in a sphere. But think about what happens once it arrives. It runs into traffic congestion. That is, it bangs into other atoms and molecules already  in town for the convention. And, while gravity works in only one direction, about half of those collisions work in the other direction, pushing stuff away from all the hot night spots downtown. This effect is most pronounced where the traffic is moving fastest, around the equator, thus that's where stuff gets pushed out most noticeably into a disk. The clearest analog in our own solar system is the rings of Saturn, which likewise resulted from in-falling crud and junk over millions of years but thinned itself out nicely into a plane perfectly aligned with Saturn's equator. A ring is, after all, merely a very thin disk.

AlexKrislov
AlexKrislov

Ah, but when Bush took a balanced budget and turned it into a 1 trillion dollar per year debt by the time he left office, that wasn't his fault, right?  Why are some people so determined to make EVERYthing about their hatred of Obama?

ERenger
ERenger

Do you know how hard it is to see your own black hole? It's a lot easier to study someone else's. 

whskybarjm
whskybarjm

I think it has something to do with line of sight.  M87 has a better vantage point for observation and less obstruction.  we are looking an edge of the blackhole through everything between us and the center.  M87 you can see the full edge of the blackhole and do not have to look through the rings of a galaxy

ERenger
ERenger

Are you talking about the black hole of despair?

mhaggag
mhaggag

"I have lost a lot of friends to black holes".Me too... must be all those circle-shaped holes on the streets that are left sometimes un-covered, with yellow traffic cones next to them.

Patrick O'Halaran
Patrick O'Halaran

What type of lasso would I need to get a hold of this "jet"?  Should it be made out of adamantium or something?

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Given the speeds at which all those loose atoms and molecules are banging into each other, there's probably a fair amount of emitting going on along with the reflecting.

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Well, it did, only in more detail. You'll note that the escaping jets are not coming from INSIDE the black hole itself but from just outside its event horizon. Once you've passed that point of no return, "you can't" is still the best available answer.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Is it possible that M87 has a binary black hole system, perhaps with a very massive black hole being orbited by a much smaller black hole, that can produce the observed effects?

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Nobody's ever seen an atom, either, Earl. Are you now going to seriously suggest that THEY don't exist, either? I'd rather get my science from scientists, thanks all the same.

mhaggag
mhaggag

"The center of the M87 elliptical galaxy, 54 million light-years from the Milky Way".So, to your point: "If the universe is nearly as big as you guys say it is"...Which is a very good point, because my "theory" is that the universe is made up of trillions of giant mirrors that reflect images of starts, galaxies and planets... we think the universe stretches millions and millions of light years, but it is actually millions of mirror reflections.

mhaggag
mhaggag

I see your point... And you are right... the "Universe" is what you see with your naked eyes looking up to the sky on a moon-less night. You can actually count all the stars in the universe in less than two hours.

ERenger
ERenger

Earl, I think maybe your head is stuck in your black hole. 

Patrick O'Halaran
Patrick O'Halaran

He does make a good point.  For every proven theory there are plenty of unproven theories or theories that were believed to be true only to be proven false down the road.  

I wouldn't place too much faith in theories; just because we have them doesn't mean that we have ultimate knowledge of any given physical property.

Anthony Max
Anthony Max

Gravity is a theory too. Try jumping out a window if you don't actually understand what a "theory" is. 

Devin Fields
Devin Fields

 Not sure if troll or just incredibly stupid.

Joe Golden
Joe Golden

lol? Yeah...we can visibly SEE the matter go into the empty void... There is visible evidence... But everything in science is theory...and the evidence always supports but never proves anything. But it's pretty obvious from visual evidence that there ARE black holes. The theories over what happens after they reach the black hole vary and there's not a lot of certainty there...but yeah these things do exist..

James C
James C

 Hahahahahahahahahahah!

Hahaha... oh, I'm sorry... hahahahaha

haha. hahahaha. ha.

ha.

Come on, it's time for your afternoon nap, little kid.

mhaggag
mhaggag

"I'll opt for just staying away from black holes if at all possible..."Good luck with that... scientists are creating one in Switzerland as we speak.

Simon
Simon

RichardSRussell - thank you for your reply.

Makes sense, and of course solar systems overall do align themselves into one plane too. Thinking more about this I would suggest then that the presence of an accretion disk is a sign of a degree of maturity for the black hole as it would take some time to form and stabilise. Interesting...

Thanks again..

Earl Krupert
Earl Krupert

From the cartoon character??? Certianly you understand why I  chuckled at your line....

Earl Krupert
Earl Krupert

James, the next thing you'll ask me to buy into is that an intelligent designer made the black holes, and some guy with one name was there and got a tablet from it, or if we dig deep enough, we'll get to china!!! Look how long we bought into the idea that there is a man in the sky that oversees... wait -damn.... some of us still haven't figured that out yet... You in that flock too?

Adam_Smith
Adam_Smith

@Simon A massive black hole would have begun as a much smaller black hole created by the collapse of a single massive star. That star would already have a disc of planets or comets or dust of some sort and that would have been the start of the accretion disk. The disk is actually much older than the black hole itself.