Could You Survive Going Into or Living in a Black Hole?

Black holes are known to be nasty objects, but how likely are you to survive falling into one?
Jaime Trosper

There are many ways to die in space, from burning up on Venus, to freezing on Mars, being exposed to the vacuum of space, to being struck by an asteroid crash or a gamma-ray burst. Basically, outer space is a terrifying place and there's not much we could do to avoid any of these fates. One phenomenon, a black hole, might hold the record for "most horrifying, yet fascinating, way to die in space." Here's a look at what happens when you first encounter a black hole, and how you might survive and even thrive after such an awful encounter. First:

The gravity of the situation: 

Although Einsteing himself argued against the existence of black holes, their existence was originally derived from Einstein's formulation of what is now known as the theory of general relativity, which is one of the most important theories in the history of physics. Much of what Einstein proposed in the theory has since been confirmed by experiments, such as one that showed the fabric of spacetime is warped by objects with extreme gravitational fields (which was originally done by observing the bending of light during a solar eclipse). This warping leads to our most basic understanding of gravity — it is the result of the warping of spacetime. The larger and more dense the object, the stronger the gravitational pull.

Rendering that shows the warping around Earth that demonstrates gravity Source: NASA/MSFC/Stanford University artist's concept

The theory of general relativity also gave rise to the prediction of black holes: Infinitely dense points in space, surrounded by event horizons, where nothing — not even light — can escape. Sometimes, more matter collects around the event horizon than the black hole can take in at once, so it all gathers in orbit around the black hole and forms an accretion disk. Friction happens within the disk, which generates large amounts of light radiation that can be seen and measured by astronomers. 

Thanks to the discovery, and subsequent imaging, of a black hole located in M87, about 55 million light-years from Earth, in 2019, science has once again shown that Einstein's theory was on the right track. In addition to behaving in the way Einstein predicted, the Event Horizon Telescope team was able to measure the behemoth black hole in the core of M87. Previous estimates suggested it was between 3.5 billion and 7.22 billion solar masses, but it's actually closer to 6.5 billion solar masses (one solar mass is the mass of the Sun, 1.989 × 1030 kg) — meaning this black hole is huge by black hole standards. Its diameter is estimated to be around 23.6 billion miles (38 billion kilometers) across!

You Are Breakfast, Lunch, Brunch and/or Dinner: 

It's believed that once an object crosses the event horizon, it will get stretched apart; eventually, it is broken down into its most basic atomic composition, which poses the question: could beings delve into one and live to tell the tale, or even live in one permanently? Well, maybe... to answer this question, we must look at different types of black holes that exist. 

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Black holes come in various sizes and flavors, from micro-black holes, to stellar-mass black holes, to intermediate-mass black holes, to supermassive black holes. Some black holes — maybe even most, or all —  have spin or angular momentum and rotate at dizzying speeds, close to that of the speed of light,

a look at black holes that spin
A look at how black holes spin in different ways. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The two types we really want to delve into are firstly black holes that are electrically charged, which happens on account of lots of positively charged electrons and protons falling in, and which weigh billions times more than the Sun. The second type are static, electrically neutral black holes that have a mass approximately the same as the Sun.

In addition to the radical difference in size and mass, a stellar-mass black hole will have a massively different radial distance — that is, the distance from the event horizon to the object's central-most point — to that of a supermassive black hole. For a black hole weighing about one solar mass, its radial distance would be approximately 2 miles (3.2 km). Meanwhile, for an object as dense and large as the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way's center, which masses some 4 million solar masses, its radial distance would be 7.3 million miles (11.7 million km).

This distance is important in determining whether you could survive your journey into a black hole. Why? Well, Say you journied to a stellar-mass black hole and decided to dive on in like a dummy. You will get too close to the object's center and as a result, "The black hole’s pull on a person will differ by a factor of 1,000 billion times between head and toe, depending on which is leading the free fall. In other words, if the person is falling feet first, as they approach the event horizon of a stellar-mass black hole, the gravitational pull on their feet will be exponentially larger compared to the black hole’s tug on their head."

Astronaut and Black Hole
An astronaut falling into a black hole and becoming spaghettified Source: Laura A. Whitlock, Kara C. Granger, Jane D. Mahon/Wikimedia

 "The person would experience spaghettification, and most likely not survive being stretched into a long, thin noodlelike shape," according to Leo Rodriguez, Assistant Professor of Physics from Grinnell College, and Shanshan Rodriguez, Assistant Professor of Physics at Grinnell College, in an article published by The Conversation.

Is There a But? 

Duh. I'd never leave you hanging. Hypothetically, the gravity is much stronger toward the central point of a black hole, so if you swan dived into a supermassive black hole, Rodriguez and Rodriguez both surmise, you would, "reach the event horizon much farther from the central source of gravitational pull, which means that the difference in gravitational pull between head and toe is nearly zero. Thus, the person would pass through the event horizon unaffected, not be stretched into a long, thin noodle, survive and float painlessly past the black hole’s horizon."

That assumes the black hole does not have an accretion disk, where heated up matter circles the black hole and would incinerate you in a second. In order to actually enter one, we would need to locate a black hole that is extremely isolated from any material that would generate an accretion disk, such as stars, gas, dust, planets, etc. 

As we have seen, the larger the black hole, the more likely it is that you could initially survive diving in. The problem is that it still requires  travelling at speeds exceeding that of light, which is 186,000 miles (300 million meters) per SECOND, to reach the escape velocity of the black hole's immense gravitational pull of its event horizon. That, as we currently know, is impossible. So better get comfy. As from the outside, you no longer exist. 

Could You Live in a Black Hole?

A couple of years ago, astronomers discovered what they believed to be a so-called "ultramassive black hole" — weighing approximately 40 billion solar masses. Meaning, it is 40 billion times more massive than the Sun. Located in a galaxy 700 million light-years from Earth, known as Holmberg 15A (which is part of the Abell 85 galaxy cluster), this gargantuan black hole is one of the most massive ever discovered. However, it's believed black holes weighing more than 100 billion solar masses may even exist. 

Abell 87 Galaxy Cluster
Abell 87 is home to one of the most massive black holes in existence. Source: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford/Hlavacek-Larrondo, J. et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

In theory, if we were to discover one of these ultramassive black holes roughly the size of our solar system, there may be a stable part inside of the black hole where advanced beings could live permanently. One type of black hole — called a Reissner-Nordstrom Black Hole — is especially important here. They not only rotate, but have electrical charge. Some scientists posit that it's possible for an entire planet to exist within an black hole without becoming lunch. 

This is because black holes of that size have a second boundary beyond the event horizon, a so-called "inner Cauchy horizon" — a region within where things become somewhat smooth, stable (comparatively). Here, radiation and tidal forces are somewhat weak.

Of course, Stephen Hawking predicted that it was possible that black holes do not actually destroy all matter and information about particles. Instead, they can radiate energy back into the universe. As a result, black holes would eventually evaporate from this slow loss of mass. Therefore, you would need to find an eternal black hole to continue to exist safely. 

A Russian astronomer was one of the first to propose that a type II alien civilization on the Kardashev Scale may have the technological ability to find one of these black holes and survive the tidal forces that would otherwise tear them apart.

In his paper, Vyacheslav Dokuchaev, from Moscow's Institute for Nuclear Research and the Russian Academy of Sciences, remarked: "We hypothesise that the advanced civilisations may live safely inside the supermassive black holes in the galactic nuclei being invisible from the outside.”

Furthermore, he adds "living inside the eternal black holes is possible in principle, if these black holes are rotating or charged and massive enough for weakening the tidal forces and radiation of gravitational waves to acceptable level.”

Mr Dokuchaev added: "The naked central singularity illuminates the orbiting internal planets and provides the energy supply for life supporting. Some additional highlighting during the night time comes from eternally circulating photons.”

"This internal black hole domain, hidden by the two horizons from the whole external universe, is indeed a suitable place for safe inhabitation."

"The only thing needed is to put your vehicle or your planet to a stable periodic orbit inside the black hole.

"Yet, some difficulties (or advantages?) of a life inside black holes are worth mentioning, such as a possible causality violation and the growing energy density in the close vicinity of the Cauchy horizon."

Basically, it could be theoretically possible (but probably not very likely) to survive a trip into a massive black hole, and some scientists predict some forms of alien life might even live inside the Cauchy horizon. However, you should say goodbye to everyone you know and love, because this move is permanent. 

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