Don’t let the name fool you: a black hole is anything but empty space.

Rather, a black hole has a great amount of matter packed into a very small area — think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing — not even light — can escape.
Supermassive gallery: How black holes gobble stars

Often portrayed in movies and on television as gateways to another dimension or cosmic vacuum cleaners sucking up everything in sight, the misconceptions surrounding black holes are many and varied.

In reality, black holes form when, at the end of their life cycle, heavy stars collapse into a supernova. These relatively puny black holes may provide a “seed” for the development of the giant black holes — called supermassive — found at the center of galaxies, which grow by absorbing gas, stars and other black holes.

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Scientists can’t directly observe black holes with telescopes that detect x-rays, light, or other forms of electromagnetic radiation. They can, however, infer the presence of black holes and study them by detecting their effect on other matter nearby.

If a black hole passes through a cloud of interstellar matter, for example, it will draw matter inward in a process known as accretion. A similar process can occur if a normal star passes close to a black hole. In that case, the black hole can tear the star apart as it pulls it toward itself — and as the attracted matter accelerates and heats up, it emits x-rays that radiate into space.

Since the action black holes can’t be witnessed by our eyes, here are 12 different NASA artists’ renderings that powerfully demonstrate just how energetic and amazing our universe can be.

1. A supermassive black hole
A supermassive black hole is depicted in this artist's concept, surrounded by a swirling disk of material falling onto it. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A supermassive black hole is depicted in this artist’s concept, surrounded by a swirling disk of material falling onto it. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

2. A growing black hole, or quasar
Artist concept of a growing black hole, or quasar, seen at the center of a faraway galaxy. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This artist’s concept shows a growing black hole, or quasar, seen at the center of a faraway galaxy. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

3. Supermassive black hole surrounded by matter flowing
This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole's spin. The regions near black holes contain compact sources of high energy X-ray radiation thought, in some scenarios, to originate from the base of these jets. This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays. The reflected light enables astronomers to see how fast matter is swirling in the inner region of the disk, and ultimately to measure the black hole's spin rate. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole’s spin. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

4. Tidal disruption
Astronomers have observed material being blown away from a black hole after it tore a star apart. This event, known as a

Astronomers have observed material being blown away from a black hole after it tore a star apart. This event, known as a “tidal disruption,” is depicted in the artist’s illustration. (Credit: NASA/CXC/U Michigan/J. Miller et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

5. Wind around a stellar-mass black hole
This artist's impression shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole known as IGR J17091 for short. Observations with Chandra have clocked the fastest wind ever seen blowing off a disk around this stellar-mass black hole at about 20 million miles per hour. The wind, which comes from a disk of gas surrounding the black hole, may be carrying away much more material than the black hole is capturing and could be variable over time. This result has important implications for understanding how this class of black hole, which typically weighs between 5 and 10 solar masses, can behave. Image Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

This artist’s impression shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole known as IGR J17091. Observations have clocked the fastest wind ever seen blowing off a disk around this stellar-mass black hole at about 20 million miles per hour. The wind, which comes from a disk of gas surrounding the black hole, may be carrying away much more material than the black hole is capturing and could be variable over time. This result has important implications for understanding how this class of black hole, which typically weighs between 5 and 10 solar masses, can behave. (Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

6. Black hole and accretion disk
A black hole is a massive object whose gravitational field is so intense that no light (electromagnetic radiation) can escape it. Around many black holes is an accretion disk of material emitting energy as it falls into the black hole.

A black hole is a massive object whose gravitational field is so intense that no light (electromagnetic radiation) can escape it. Around many black holes is an accretion disk of material emitting energy as it falls into the black hole. (Credit: NASA)

7. Binary system pairs a normal star with a black hole
It's thought that strong magnetic fields near the black hole's event horizon eject some of the gas into dual, oppositely directed jets that blast outward at nearly the speed of light. The peak of its heartbeat emission corresponds to the emergence of the jet. This image is an artist's rendering showing the onset of the disk wind, which shuts down the jet. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

It’s thought that strong magnetic fields near the black hole’s event horizon eject some of the gas into dual, oppositely-directed jets that blast outward at nearly the speed of light. The peak of its heartbeat emission corresponds to the emergence of the jet. This image is an artist’s rendering showing the onset of the disk wind, which shuts down the jet. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

8. Turbulent winds of gas swirl around a black hole
In this artist's illustration, turbulent winds of gas swirl around a black hole. Some of the gas is spiraling inward toward the black hole, but another part is blown away. Artwork Credit: NASA, and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)

In this artist’s illustration, turbulent winds of gas swirl around a black hole. Some of the gas is spiraling inward toward the black hole, but another part is blown away. (Credit: NASA, and M. Weiss Chandra X-ray Center)

9. A black hole rips a star apart
This computer-simulated image shows gas from a star that is ripped apart by tidal forces as it falls into a black hole. Some of the gas also is being ejected at high speeds into space. Image Credit: NASA, S. Gezari (The Johns Hopkins University), and J. Guillochon (University of California, Santa Cruz)

This computer-simulated image shows gas from a star that is ripped apart by tidal forces as it falls into a black hole. Some of the gas also is being ejected at high speeds into space. (Credit: NASA, S. Gezari at The Johns Hopkins University and J. Guillochon at University of California, Santa Cruz)

10. The Cygnus X-1 system
On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist's illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. New studies with data from Chandra and several other telescopes have determined the black hole's spin, mass, and distance with unprecedented accuracy. An artist's drawing a black hole named Cygnus X-1. It formed when a large star caved in. This black hole pulls matter from blue star beside it. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

An artist’s drawing a black hole named Cygnus X-1, which formed when a large star caved in. This black hole pulls matter from blue star beside it. (Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

11. Spinning black hole
Einstein's general theory of relativity is a well-tested theory of gravitation with wide applications. This image shows an artist's conception of a spinning black hole - just one of the predictions of general relativity. (Credit: NASA/D. Berry)

Einstein’s general theory of relativity is a well-tested theory of gravitation with wide applications. This image shows an artist’s conception of a spinning black hole — just one of the predictions of general relativity. (Credit: NASA/D. Berry)

12. Accretion disks of hot material
Accretion disks of hot material encircle many black holes, and this material emits X-rays and other forms of energy. Gas closer to the black hole is hotter and emits more energetic radiation. Gas at the innermost stable orbit tells astronomers whether the black hole is spinning because a rotating black hole can host material in stable orbits much closer to its event horizon. Oppositely directed jets of gas often form in the innermost zone of black hole accretion disks. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Accretion disks of hot material encircle many black holes, and this material emits X-rays and other forms of energy. Gas closer to the black hole is hotter and emits more energetic radiation. Gas at the innermost stable orbit tells astronomers whether the black hole is spinning, because a rotating black hole can host material in stable orbits much closer to its event horizon. Oppositely directed jets of gas often form in the innermost zone of black hole accretion disks. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Understanding black holes

In recent years, NASA instruments have painted a new picture of these strange objects that are, to many, the most fascinating objects in space.

Although the term “black hole” was not coined until 1967 by Princeton physicist John Wheeler, the idea of an object in space so massive and dense that light could not escape it has been around for centuries. Most famously, black holes were predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which showed that when a massive star dies, it leaves behind a small, dense remnant core. If the core’s mass is more than about three times the mass of the Sun, the equations showed, the force of gravity overwhelms all other forces and produces a black hole.

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Recent discoveries offer some tantalizing evidence that black holes have a dramatic influence on the neighborhoods around them — emitting powerful gamma ray bursts, devouring nearby stars, and spurring the growth of new stars in some areas, while stalling it in others.

Big black holes, little black holes

Although the basic formation process is understood, one perennial mystery in the science of black holes is that they appear to exist on two radically different size scales. On the one end, there are the countless black holes that are the remnants of massive stars.

Peppered throughout the Universe, these “stellar mass” black holes are generally 10 to 24 times as massive as the Sun. Astronomers spot them when another star draws near enough for some of the matter surrounding it to be snared by the black hole’s gravity, churning out x-rays in the process.

Most stellar black holes, however, lead isolated lives and are impossible to detect. Judging from the number of stars large enough to produce such black holes, however, scientists estimate that there are as many as ten million to a billion such black holes in the Milky Way alone.

On the other end of the size spectrum are the giants known as “supermassive” black holes, which are millions, if not billions, of times as massive as the Sun. Astronomers believe that supermassive black holes lie at the center of virtually all large galaxies, even our own Milky Way. Astronomers can detect them by watching for their effects on nearby stars and gas.

Historically, astronomers have long believed that no mid-sized black holes exist. However, recent evidence from Chandra, XMM-Newton and Hubble strengthens the case that mid-size black holes do exist. One possible mechanism for the formation of supermassive black holes involves a chain reaction of collisions of stars in compact star clusters that results in the buildup of extremely massive stars, which then collapse to form intermediate-mass black holes. The star clusters then sink to the center of the galaxy, where the intermediate-mass black holes merge to form a supermassive black hole.


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About: All photos and information courtesy of NASA

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