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. 

Manmeet Jha
Manmeet Jha

I CAN SEE ONLY SUN,I CANT SEE ANY HOLES IN IT SORRY

Tracy Hull
Tracy Hull

There's no bottom to a black hole so escape is futile.

TripleA60
TripleA60

Easy to escape, Vote for Romney...

Ok I apologize flame me I deseve it. I just couldn't hold it in. It was beginning to hurt.

Nicco Janelli
Nicco Janelli

Hey, Time, what's the deal with your website? Every link I click takes me to a Citi ad that doesn't close or redirct or anything. I'm using IE9 on Windows 7 (at the moment).

SharpndPensel
SharpndPensel

Wait, so how do you escape from a black hole? 

MortarFire
MortarFire

The title is misleading. The article doesn't, in any way, explain how to escape a black hole, nor does it explain how the jets are produced. Phooey!

Carlos Cureau
Carlos Cureau

It should be called an a--hole because that's what it looks like;0

BryanHinnen
BryanHinnen

I believe the use of the term "black" hole is inappropriate and should be dropped in favor of gravitational hole.  The epithet "black hole" is offensive to people of color.  

cajuntide
cajuntide

Wow something worth reading thats not about the debate. This is full of stuff i didnt know and wish i was taught in school. I hope for more articals like this in the future.