Tossing Out a Black Hole Life Preserver

A ring of matter would keep you alive longer as you get swallowed by a black hole.

It’s a good thing we can’t get anywhere near a black hole. If it were possible, the consequences would not be pretty.

A black hole is a point in space where gravity is so intense that not even light can escape its tremendous grip. If you happened to come anywhere near such an eerie object, it would stretch you from head to toe and squeeze you from side to side, turning you into a pitiful strip of human linguini. Death would come in just a fraction of a second.

 

A ring of electrically charged matter could serve as a “life extender” and allow an object to venture further inside a black hole than otherwise possible before being ripped apart.

 

D. Berry/Space Telescope Science Institute, S. Norcross

Unless, that is, you armed yourself with a black hole life preserver. There is no such thing, of course. But two astronomers—J. Richard Gott of Princeton University and Deborah L. Freedman of Harvard University—have come up with a design that might work.

The lifesaver would look like a thin ring. It might be as large as one of the rings of Saturn and as heavy as an asteroid. If you could keep it around your waist, the ring would shrink as you entered the black hole and counteract its forces on your body. Even so, the ring would only buy you an extra 0.09 second before the black hole sucked the life out of you completely.

The idea could some day have a practical application. If people ever do find a way to travel into deep space, a protective ring could keep them alive during an encounter with a black hole just long enough to save them for the journey home.

The intrepid space travelers might have to do some tricky maneuvering, though. A ring as big as a planet could be pretty awkward to bring along!—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Cowen, Ron. 2003. Black hole life preserver: Don’t get sucked in without one. Science News 164(Aug. 30):132. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20030830/fob3.asp .

You can learn more about black holes at the following Web sites:

http://kids.msfc.nasa.gov/Space/Black%20Holes/

(NASA Kids)

http://www.kidsastronomy.com/black_hole.htm

(KidsAstronomy.com)

http://www.worldalmanacforkids.com/explore/space/blackhole.html

(World Almanac for Kids Online)

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