Category: 10 Things

Happy 20th anniversary, Hubble!

By Phil Plait | April 23, 2010 7:00 am

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. I spent ten years of my life working on that magnificent machine, from using observations of a supernova for my PhD, all the way to helping test, calibrate, and eventually use STIS, a camera put on Hubble in 1997.

Last year, I published Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble, and I don’t think I can really add much to it here. I also have a lot of new readers since then, so I’ll simply repost it now as my tip o’ the dew shield to the world’s most famous observatory.


On April 24, 1990, the Space Shuttle Discovery roared into space, carrying on board a revolution: The Hubble Space Telescope. It was the largest and most sensitive optical-light telescope ever launched into space, and while it suffered initially from a focusing problem, it would soon return some of the most amazing and beautiful astronomical images anyone had ever seen.

Hubble was designed to be periodically upgraded, and even as I write this, astronauts are in the Space Shuttle Atlantis installing two new cameras, fixing two others, and replacing a whole slew of Hubble’s parts. This is the last planned mission, ever, to service the venerable ‘scope, so what better time to talk about it?

Plus, it’s arguably the world’s most famous telescope (it’s probably the only one people know by name), and yet I suspect that there are lots of things about it that might surprise you. So I present to you Ten Things You Don’t Know About the Hubble Space Telescope, part of my Ten Things series. I know, my readers are smart, savvy, exceptionally good-looking, and well-versed in things astronomical. Whenever I do a Ten Things post some goofball always claims they knew all ten. But I am extremely close to being 100% positive that no one who reads this blog will know all ten things here (unless they’ve used Hubble themselves). I have one or two big surprises in this one, including some of my own personal interactions with the great observatory!

Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble


CATEGORIZED UNDER: 10 Things, Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures

Ten Things You Don't Know About Comets

By Phil Plait | April 20, 2010 6:00 am

I love me some comets.

I’ve seen quite a few in my time. Some were faint smudges in a big telescope’s eyepiece, some seen only in distant spacecraft images, and some so bright they were obvious and awesome to my naked eye.

They used to be considered harbingers, omens up for interpretation by mystics and people looking for reasons things happened the way they do. In reality, comets are just a class of objects in our solar system along with planets, asteroids, dust, and one biggish star.


Hmm. Did I say "just"? That’s unfair. They are gorgeous, interesting objects, worthy of study. And 100 years ago today — April 20, 1910 — we got a pretty good look at the most famous of them all, Comet Halley, as it passed the Earth at a distance of just 23 million km (14 million miles). It got so bright that it was obvious even when seen from cities. As geometry would have it, the Earth even passed through the comet’s tail, sparking fears of widespread death (cyanogen was detected in the comet, making people think it would poison them). It was the talk of the planet, featured in magazines and papers across the globe. For your history enjoyment, here is one of those articles from the 1910, transcribed by James Brooks. It gives a great flavor of the times.

To celebrate this remarkable centennial anniversary, I have put together Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets. I imagine some readers will know some of these, and some will know all ten, but if you do you can still enjoy the pretty pictures — and make sure you click on them to embiggen ’em. And if you like this, I have several others, too (Ten Things You Don’t Know About… the Earth, Black Holes, Hubble, the Sun, Pluto, and the Milky Way), so check ’em all out and see how many things you don’t know.



Ten Things You Don't Know About Hubble

By Phil Plait | May 13, 2009 5:00 am

<Back to Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble main page>

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Ten Things You Don't Know About Pluto

By Phil Plait | March 13, 2009 4:00 am

<Back to Ten Things You Don’t Know About Pluto main page>

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Ten Things You Don't Know About the Sun

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2009 6:00 am

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Ten things you don't know about black holes

By Phil Plait | October 30, 2008 8:48 pm

Well, they’re black, and they’re like bottomless holes. What would you call them?
-Me, when a friend asked me why they’re named what they are

Ah, black holes. The ultimate shiver-inducer of the cosmos, out-jawing sharks, out-ooking spiders, out-scaring… um, something scary. But we’re fascinated by ’em, have no doubt — even if we don’t understand a whole lot about them.

But then, that’s why I’m here. Allow me to be your tour guide to infinity. Or the inverse of it, I suppose. Since it’s Halloween this seems appropriate… and my book Death from the Skies! just came out, and there’s lots of ways a black hole can destroy the Earth. Mwuhahahaha.

So below I present ten facts about black holes — the third in my series of Ten Things You Don’t Know (the first was on the Milky Way; the second about the Earth). Regular readers will know a few of these since I’ve talked about them before, but I’m hoping you don’t know all of these. And if you do, then feel free to leave a comment preening about your superior intellect. Mind you, this list is nowhere near complete: I could have picked probably 50 things that are weird about black holes. But I like these.

1) It’s not their mass, it’s their size that makes them so strong.

OK, first, a really quick primer on black holes. Bear with me!

The most common way for a black hole to form is in the core of a massive star. The core runs out of fuel, and collapses. This sets off a shockwave, blowing up outer layers of the star, causing a supernova. So the star’s heart collapses while the rest of it explodes outwards (this is the Cliff’s notes version; for more details on the process — which is way cool, so you should read it — check out my description of it).

As the core collapses, its gravity increases. At some point, if the core is massive enough (about 3 times the mass of the Sun), the gravity gets so strong that right at the surface of the collapsing core the escape velocity increases to the speed of light. That means that nothing can escape the gravity of this object, not even light. So it’s black. And since nothing can escape, well, read the quotation at the top of the page.

The region around the black hole itself where the escape velocity equals the speed of light is called the event horizon. Any event that happens inside it is forever invisible.

OK, so now you know what one is, and how they form. Now, I could explain why they have such strong gravity, but you know what? I’d rather let this guy do it. I hear he’s good.

So there you go. Sure, the mass is important, but sometimes it’s the little things that count.

2) They’re not infinitely small.

So OK, they’re small, but how small are they?

I was writing about black holes in my previous job, and we got in a fun discussion over just what we meant by black hole: did we mean the object itself that collapses down to a mathematical point, or the event horizon surrounding it? I said the event horizon, but my boss said it was the object. I decided she had a point (HAHAHAHAHA! A "point"! Man, I kill me), and made sure that when I wrote about the event horizon versus the black hole itself I was making myself clear.

Like I said above, to the collapsing core, its clock keeps ticking, so it sees itself collapsing all the way down to a point, even if the event horizon has some finite size.

What happens to the core? The actual mass that collapsed?

Out here, we’ll never know for sure. We can’t see in, and it sure enough isn’t gonna send any info out. But our math in these situations is pretty good, and we can at least apply them to the collapsing core, even when it’s smaller than the event horizon.

It will continue to collapse, and the gravity increases. Smaller, smaller… and when I was a kid I always read that it collapses all the way down to a geometric dot, an object with no dimensions at all. That really bugged me, as you can imagine… as well it should. Because it’s wrong.

At some point, the collapsing core will be smaller than an atom, smaller than a nucleus, smaller than an electron. It’ll eventually reach a size called the Planck Length, a unit so small that quantum mechanics rules it with an iron fist. A Planck Length is a kind of quantum size limit: if an object gets smaller than this, we literally cannot know much about it with any certainty. The actual physics is complicated, but pretty much when the collapsing core hits this size, even if we could somehow pierce the event horizon, we couldn’t measure its real size. In fact, the term "real size" doesn’t really mean anything at this kind of scale. If the Universe itself prevents you from measuring it, you might as well say the term has no meaning.

And how small is a Planck Length? Teeny tiny: about 10-35 meters. That’s one one-hundred quintillionth the size of a proton.

So if someone says a black hole has zero size, you can be all geeky and technical and say, not really, but meh. Close enough.

3) They’re spheres. And they’re definitely not funnel shaped.

The gravity you feel from an object depends on two things: the object’s mass, and your distance from that object. This means that anyone at a given distance from a massive object — say, a million kilometers — would feel the same force of gravity from it. That distance defines a sphere around an object: anyone on that sphere’s surface would feel the same gravity from the object at the center.

The size of an event horizon of a black hole depends on the gravity, so really the event horizon is a sphere surrounding the black hole. From the outside, if you could figure out how to see the event horizon in the first place, it would look like a pitch black sphere.

Some people think of black holes as being circles, or worse, funnel-shaped. The funnel thing is a misconception from people trying to explain gravity as a bending in space, and they simplify things by collapsing 3D space into 2D; they say the space is like a bed sheet, and objects with mass bend space the same way that a massive object (a bowling ball, say) will warp a bed sheet. But space is not 2D, it’s 3D (even 4D if you include time) and so this explanation can confuse people about the actual shape of a black hole event horizon.

I’ve had kids ask me what happens if you approach a black hole from underneath! They sometimes don’t get that black holes are spheres, and there is no underneath. I blame the funnel story. Sadly, it’s the best analogy I’ve seen, so we’re stuck with it. Use it with care.

4) Black holes spin!

It’s kind of an odd thought, but black holes can spin. Stars rotate, and when the core collapses the rotation speeds way, way up (the usual analogy is that of an ice skater who brings in his arms, increasing his rotation rate). As the core of the star gets smaller it rotates more rapidly. If it doesn’t quite have enough mass to become a black hole, the matter gets squeezed together to form a neutron star, a ball of neutrons a few kilometers across. We have detected hundreds of these objects, and they tend to spin very rapidly, sometimes hundreds of times a second!

The same is true for a black hole. Even as the matter shrinks down smaller than the event horizon and is lost to the outside Universe forever, the matter is still spinning. It’s not entirely clear what this means if you’re trying to calculate what happens to the matter once it’s inside the event horizon. Does centrifugal force keep it from collapsing all the way down to the Planck length? The math is fiendish, but do-able, and implies that matter falling in will hit matter inside the event horizon trying to fall further but unable to due to rotation, This causes a massive pile up and some pretty spectacular fireworks… that we’ll never see, because its on the other side of infinity. Bummer.

5) Near a black hole, things get weird

The spin of the black hole throws a monkey in the wrench of the event horizon. Black holes distort the fabric of space itself, and if they spin that distortion itself gets distorted. Space can get wrapped around a black hole — kind of like the fabric of a sheet getting caught up in a rotating drill bit.

This creates a region of space outside the event horizon called the ergosphere. It’s an oblate spheroid, a flattened ball shape, and if you’re outside the event horizon but inside the ergosphere, you’ll find you can’t sit still. Literally. Space is being dragged past you, and carries you along with it. You can easily move in the direction of the rotation of the black hole, but if you try to hover, you can’t. In fact, inside the ergosphere space is moving faster than light! Matter cannot move that fast, but it turns out, according to Einstein, space itself can. So if you want to hover over a black hole, you’d have to move faster than light in the direction opposite the spin. You can’t do that, so you have to move with the spin, fly away, or fall in. Those are your choices.

I suggest flying away. Fast. Because…

6) Approaching a black hole can kill you in fun ways. And by fun, I mean gruesome, horrifying, and really really ookie.

Sure, if you get too close, plop! You fall in. But even if you keep your distance you’re still in trouble…

Black hole, down the drain

Gravity depends on distance. The farther you are from an object, the weaker its gravity. So if you have a long object near a massive one, the long object will feel a stronger gravitational force on the near end versus a weaker force on the far end! This change in gravity over distance is called the tidal force (which is a bit of a misnomer, it’s not really a force, it’s a differential force, and yes, it’s related to why we have ocean tides on Earth from the Moon).

The thing is, black holes can be small — a BH with a mass of about three times the Sun has an event horizon just a few kilometers across — and that means you can get close to them. And that in turn means that the tidal force you feel from one can get distressingly big.

Praying to this guy won’t help.

Let’s say you fall feet first into a stellar-mass BH. It turns out that as you approach, the difference in gravity between your head and your feet can get huge. HUGE. The force can be so strong that your feet get yanked away from your head with hundreds of millions of times the force of Earth’s gravity. You’d be stretched into a long, thin strand and then shredded.

Astronomers call this spaghettification. Ewwww.

So getting near a black hole is dangerous even if you don’t fall in. Evidently, there really is a tide in the affairs of men.

7) Black holes aren’t always dark

The thing is, black holes can kill from a long way off.

Disk of DOOOOOM!
Image credit: NASA/CXC

Matter falling into a black hole would rarely if ever just fall straight in and disappear. If it has a little bit of sideways motion it’ll go around the black hole. As more matter falls in, all this junk can pile up around the hole. Because of the way rotating objects behave, this matter will create a disk of material whirling madly around the hole, and because the gravity of the hole changes so rapidly with distance, matter close in will be orbiting much faster than stuff farther out. This matter literally rubs together, generating heat through friction. This stuff can get really hot, like millions of degrees hot. Matter that hot glows with intense brightness… which means that near the black hole, this matter can be seriously luminous.

Worse, magnetic and other forces can focus two beams of energy that go plowing out of the poles of the disk. The beams start just outside the black hole, but can be seen for millions or even billions of light years distant.

They’re bright.

In fact, black holes that are eating matter in this way can glow so brightly that they become the brightest continuously-emitting objects in the Universe! We call these active black holes.

And as if black holes aren’t dangerous enough, the matter gets so hot right before it makes the final plunge that it can furiously emit X-rays, high-energy forms of light (and the beams can emit even higher energy light than that). So even if you park your spaceship well outside the event horizon of a black hole, if something else falls in and gets shredded, you get rewarded by being fried by the equivalent of a gazillion dental exams.

I may have mentioned this: black holes are dangerous. Best to stay away from them.

8) Black holes aren’t always dangerous.

I’m right there with you, dude.

Having said that, let me ask you a question: if I were to take the Sun and replace it with Folgers crystals a black hole of the exact same mass, what would happen? Would the Earth fall in, be flung away, or just orbit like it always does?

Most people think the Earth would fall in, sucked inexorably down by the black hole’s powerful gravity. But remember, the gravity you feel from an object depends on the mass of the object and your distance from it. I said the black hole has the same mass as the Sun, remember? And the Earth’s distance hasn’t changed. So the gravity we’d feel from here, 150 million kilometers away, would be exactly the same! So the Earth would orbit the solar black hole just as nicely as it orbits the Sun now.

Of course, we’d freeze to death. You can’t have everything.

9) Black holes can get big.

Q: What happens if two stellar-mass black holes collide?

A: You get one bigger black hole.

You can extrapolate from there. Black holes can eat other objects, including other black holes, so they can grow. We think that early on in the Universe, when galaxies were just forming, matter collecting in the center of the nascent galaxy can collapse to form a very massive black hole. As more matter falls in, the hole greedily consumes it, and grows. Eventually you get a supermassive black hole, one with millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun.

However, remember that as matter falls in it can get hot. It can be so hot that the pressure from light itself can blow off material that’s farther out, a bit like the solar wind but on a much grander scale. The strength of the wind depends on many things, including the mass of the black hole; the heftier the hole, the windier the, uh, wind. This wind prevents more matter from falling in, so it acts like a cutoff valve for the ever-increasingly girthy hole.

Not only that, but over time the gas and dust around the black hole (well, pretty far out, but still near the center of the galaxy) gets turned into stars. Gas can fall into a black hole more easily than stars (if gas clouds collide head-on their motion relative to the black hole can stop, allowing them to fall in; stars are too small and too far apart for this to happen). So eventually the black hole stops consuming matter because nothing more is falling into it. It stops growing, the galaxy becomes stable, and everyone is happy.

Don’t panic!
OK, maybe a little.

In fact, when we look into the Universe today, we see that pretty much every large galaxy has a supermassive black hole in its heart. Even the Milky Way has a black hole at its core with a mass of four millions times that of the Sun. Before you start running around in circles and screaming, remember this: 1) it’s a long way off, 26,000 light years (260 quadrillion kilometers), 2) its mass is still very small compared to the 200 billion solar masses of our galaxy, and therefore 3) it can’t really harm us. Unless it starts actively feeding. Which it isn’t. But it might start sometime, if something falls into it. Though we don’t know of anything that can fall into it soon. But we might miss cold gas.


Anyway, remember this as well: even though black holes can cause death and destruction on a major scale, they also help galaxies themselves form! So we owe our existence to them.

10) Black holes can be low density.

Of all the weirdnesses about black holes, this one is the weirdest to me.

As you might expect, the event horizon of a black hole gets bigger as the mass gets bigger. That’s because if you add mass, the gravity gets stronger, which means the event horizon will grow.

If you do the math carefully, you find that the event horizon grows linearly with the mass. In other words, if you double the black hole’s mass, the event horizon radius doubles as well.

That’s weird! Why?

The volume of a sphere depends on the cube of the radius (think way back to high school: volume = 4/3 x π x radius3). Double the radius, and the volume goes up by 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 times. Make the radius of a sphere 10 times bigger and the volume goes up by a factor of 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000.

So volume goes up really quickly as you increase the size of a sphere.

Now imagine you have two spheres of clay that are the same size. Lump them together. Is the resulting sphere twice as big?

No! You’ve doubled the mass, but the radius only increases a little bit. Because volume goes as radius cubed, to double the radius of your final clay ball, you’d need to lump together eight of them.

But that’s different than a black hole. Double the mass, double the size of the event horizon. That has an odd implication…

Density is how much mass is packed into a given volume. Keep the size the same and add mass, and the density goes up. Increase the volume, but keep the mass the same, and the density goes down. Got it?

So now let’s look at the average density of matter inside the event horizon of the black hole. If I take two identical black holes and collide them, the event horizon size doubles, and the mass doubles too. But volume has gone up by eight times! So the density actually decreases, and is 1/4 what I started with (twice the mass and eight times the volume gives you 1/4 the density). Keep doing that, and the density decreases.

A regular black hole — that is, one with three times the Sun’s mass — with have an event horizon radius of about 9 km. That means it has a huge density, about two quadrillion grams per cubic cm (2 x 1015). But double the mass, and the density drops by a factor of four. Put in 10 times the mass and the density drops by a factor of 100. A billion solar mass black hole (big, but we see them this big in galaxy centers) would drop that density by a factor of 1 x 1018. That would give it a density of roughly 1/1000 of a gram per cc… and that’s the density of air!

A billion solar mass black hole would have an event horizon 3 billion km in radius — roughly the distance of Neptune to the Sun.

See where I’m going here? If you were to rope off the solar system out past Neptune, enclose it in a giant sphere, and fill it with air, it would be a black hole!

That, to me, is by far the oddest thing about black holes. Sure, they warp space, distort time, play with our sense of what’s real and isn’t… but when they touch on the everyday and screw with that, well, that’s what gets me.

I first thought of this at a black hole conference at Stanford a few years back. I was walking with noted black hole expert Roger Blandford when it hit me. I did a quick mental calculation to make sure I had the numbers right, and related to Roger that a solar system full of air would be a black hole. He thought about it for a moment and said, "Yes, that sounds about right."

And that, me droogs, was one of the coolest moments of my hole life. But thinking about it still makes my brain hurt.


Well, what can I say? Black holes are weird.

As it so happens, there was a lot more that could be said about them, of course. What about wormholes? What about how they form? what about Hawking radiation? Can black holes totally evaporate?

You can find answers to these and other questions elsewhere on the web (and even on this very blog); I couldn’t cover everything in just ten sections! But I’ll note (shocker) that chapter 5 of my book Death from the Skies! talks in detail about how they form, and what they can do if you get too close to them. Later chapters also talk about the black hole in the core of the Milky Way, and what will happen to black holes a long time from now… literally, 1060, 1070, even a googol years from now.

But even then, that’s not the scariest thing about black holes. I almost didn’t put this in the post, it’s so over the top mind-numbingly horrifying. But I’m a scientist, and we’re skeptics here, so we can take it. So I present to you, the worst thing about black holes of all:

"If there’s any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!"

Ten things you don't know about the Earth

By Phil Plait | September 8, 2008 8:00 pm

Look up, look down, look out, look around.

— Yes, "It Can Happen"

Good advice from the 70s progressive band. Look around you. Unless you’re one of the Apollo astronauts, you’ve lived your entire life within a few hundred kilometers of the surface of the Earth. There’s a whole planet beneath your feet, 6.6 sextillion tons of it, one trillion cubic kilometers of it. But how well do you know it?

Below are ten facts about the Earth — the second in my series of Ten Things You Don’t Know (the first was on the Milky Way). Some things I already knew (and probably you do, too), some I had ideas about and had to do some research to check, and others I totally made up. Wait! No! Kidding. They’re all real. But how many of them do you know? Be honest.

1) The Earth is smoother than a billiard ball.

Maybe you’ve heard this statement: if the Earth were shrunk down to the size of a billiard ball, it would actually be smoother than one. When I was in third grade, my teacher said basketball, but it’s the same concept. But is it true? Let’s see. Strap in, there’s a wee bit of math (like, a really wee bit).

OK, first, how smooth is a billiard ball? According to the World Pool-Billiard Association, a pool ball is 2.25 inches in diameter, and has a tolerance of +/- 0.005 inches. In other words, it must have no pits or bumps more than 0.005 inches in height. That’s pretty smooth. The ratio of the size of an allowable bump to the size of the ball is 0.005/2.25 = about 0.002.

The Earth has a diameter of about 12,735 kilometers (on average, see below for more on this). Using the smoothness ratio from above, the Earth would be an acceptable pool ball if it had no bumps (mountains) or pits (trenches) more than 12,735 km x 0.00222 = about 28 km in size.

The highest point on Earth is the top of Mt. Everest, at 8.85 km. The deepest point on Earth is the Marianas Trench, at about 11 km deep.

Hey, those are within the tolerances! So for once, an urban legend is correct. If you shrank the Earth down to the size of a billiard ball, it would be smoother.

But would it be round enough to qualify?

2) The Earth is an oblate spheroid

The Earth is round! Despite common knowledge, people knew that the Earth was spherical thousands of years ago. Eratosthenes even calculated the circumference to very good accuracy!

But it’s not a perfect sphere. It spins, and because it spins, it bulges due to centrifugal force (yes, dagnappit, I said centrifugal). That is an outwards-directed force, the same thing that makes you lean to the right when turning left in a car. Since the Earth spins, there is a force outward that is a maximum at the Earth’s equator, making our Blue Marble bulge out, like a basketball with a guy sitting on it. This type of shape is called an oblate spheroid.

If you measure between the north and south poles, the Earth’s diameter is 12,713.6 km. If you measure across the Equator it’s 12,756.2 km, a difference of about 42.6 kilometers. Uh-oh! That’s more than our tolerance for a billiard ball. So the Earth is smooth enough, but not round enough, to qualify as a billiard ball.

Bummer. Of course, that’s assuming the tolerance for being out-of-round for a billiard ball is the same as it is for pits and bumps. The WPA site doesn’t say. I guess some things remain a mystery.

3) The Earth isn’t an oblate spheroid.

But we’re not done. The Earth is more complicated than an oblate spheroid. The Moon is out there too, and the Sun. They have gravity, and pull on us. The details are complicated (sate yourself here), but gravity (in the form of tides) raises bulges in the Earth’s surface as well. The tides from the Moon have an amplitude (height) of roughly a meter in the water, and maybe 30 cm in the solid Earth. The Sun is more massive than the Moon, but much farther away, and so its tides are only about half as high.

This is much smaller than the distortion due to the Earth’s spin, but it’s still there.

Other forces are at work as well, including pressure caused by the weight of the continents, upheaval due to tectonic forces, and so on. The Earth is actually a bit of a lumpy mess, but if you were to say it’s a sphere, you’d be pretty close. If you held the billiard-ball-sized Earth in your hand, I doubt you’d notice it isn’t a perfect sphere.

A professional pool player sure would though. I won’t tell Allison Fisher if you won’t.

4) OK, one more surfacey thing: the Earth is not exactly aligned with its geoid

If the Earth were infinitely elastic, then it would respond freely to all these different forces, and take on a weird, distorted shape called a geoid. For example, if the Earth’s surface were completely deluged with water (give it a few decades) then the surface shape would be a geoid. But the continents are not infinitely ductile, so the Earth’s surface is only approximately a geoid. It’s pretty close, though.

Precise measurements of the Earth’s surface are calibrated against this geoid, but the geoid itself is hard to measure. The best we can do right now is to model it using complicated mathematical functions. That’s why ESA is launching a satellite called GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) in the next few months, to directly determine the geoid’s shape.

Who knew just getting the shape of the Earth would be such a pain?

5) Jumping into hole through the Earth is like orbiting it.

I grew up thinking that if you dug a hole through the Earth (for those in the US) you’d wind up in China. Turns out that’s not true; in fact note that the US and China are both entirely in the northern hemisphere which makes it impossible, so as a kid I guess I was pretty stupid.

You can prove it to yourself with this cool but otherwise worthless mapping tool.

But what if you did dig a hole through the Earth and jump in? What would happen?

Where my own hole through the Earth ends up.

Well, you’d die (see below). But if you had some magic material coating the walls of your 13,000 km deep well, you’d have quite a trip. You’d accelerate all the way down to the center, taking about 20 minutes to get there. Then, when you passed the center, you’d start falling up for another 20 minutes, slowing the whole way. You’d just reach the surface, then you’d fall again. Assuming you evacuated the air and compensated for Coriolis forces, you’d repeat the trip over and over again, much to your enjoyment and/or terror. Actually, this would go on forever, with you bouncing up and down. I hope you remember to pack a lunch.

Note that as you fell, you accelerate all the way down, but the acceleration itself would decrease as you fell: there is less mass between you and the center of the Earth as you head down, so the acceleration due to gravity decreases as you approach the center. However, the speed with which you pass the center is considerable: about 7.7 km/sec (5 miles/second).

In fact, the math driving your motion is the same as for an orbiting object. It takes the same amount of time to fall all the way through the Earth and back as it does to orbit it, if your orbit were right at the Earth’s surface (orbits slow down as the orbital radius increases). Even weirder, it doesn’t matter where your hole goes: a straight line through the Earth from any point to any other (shallow chord, through the diameter, or whatever) gives you the same travel time of 42 or so minutes.

Gravity is bizarre. But there you go. And if you do go take the long jump, well, your trip may be a wee bit unpleasant.

6) The Earth’s interior is hot due to impacts, shrinkage, sinkage, and radioactive decay.

A long time ago, you, me, and everything else on Earth was scattered in a disk around the Sun several billion kilometers across. Over time, this aggregated into tiny bodies called planetesimals, like dinky asteroids. These would smack together, and some would stick, forming a larger body. Eventually, this object got massive enough that its gravity actively drew in more bodies. As these impacted, they released their energy of motion (kinetic energy) as heat, and the young Earth became a molten ball. Ding! One source of heat.

As the gravity increased, its force tried to crush the Earth into a more compact ball. When you squeeze an object it heats up. Ding ding! The second heat source.

Since the Earth was mostly liquid, heavy stuff fell to the center and lighter stuff rose to the top. So the core of the Earth has lots of iron, nickel, osmium, and the like. As this stuff falls, heat is generated (ding ding ding!) because the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, which in turn is converted to thermal energy due to friction.

And hey, some of those heavy elements are radioactive, like uranium. As they decay, they release heat (ding ding ding ding!). This accounts for probably more than half of the heat inside the planet.

So the Earth is hot in the inside due to at least four sources. But it’s still hot after all this time because the crust is a decent insulator. It prevents the heat from escaping efficiently, so even after 4.55 billion years, the Earth’s interior is still an unpleasantly warm place to be.

Incidentally, the amount of heat flowing out from the Earth’s surface due to internal sources is about 45 trillion Watts. That’s about three times the total global human energy consumption. If we could capture all that heat and convert it with 100% efficiency into electricity, it would literally power all of humanity. Too bad that’s an insurmountable if.

7) The Earth has at least five natural moons. But not really.

Most people think the Earth has one natural moon, which is why we call it the Moon. These people are right. But there are four other objects — at least — that stick near the Earth in the solar system. They’re not really moons, but they’re cool.

The biggest is called Cruithne (pronounced MRPH-mmmph-glug, or something similar). It’s about 5 kilometers across, and has an elliptical orbit that takes it inside and outside Earth’s solar orbit. The orbital period of Cruithne is about the same as the Earth’s, and due to the peculiarities of orbits, this means it is always on the same side of the Sun we are. From our perspective, it makes a weird bean-shaped orbit, sometimes closer, sometimes farther from the Earth, but never really far away.

That’s why some people say it’s a moon of the Earth. But it actually orbits the Sun, so it’s not a moon of ours. Same goes for the other three objects discovered, too.

Oh– these guys can’t hit the Earth. Although they stick near us, more or less, their orbits don’t physically cross ours. So we’re safe. From them.

8) The Earth is getting more massive.

Sure, we’re safe from Cruithne. But space is littered with detritus, and the Earth cuts a wide path (125 million square km in area, actually). As we plow through this material, we accumulate on average 20-40 tons of it per day! [Note: your mileage may vary; this number is difficult to determine, but it’s probably good within a factor of 2 or so.] Most of it is in the form of teeny dust particles which burn up in our atmosphere, what we call meteors (or shooting stars, but doesn’t "meteor" sound more sciencey?). These eventually fall to the ground (generally transported by rain drops) and pile up. They probably mostly wash down streams and rivers and then go into the oceans.

40 tons per day may sound like a lot, but it’s only 0.0000000000000000006% the mass of the Earth (in case I miscounted zeroes, that’s 2×10-26 6×10-21 times the Earth’s mass). It would take 140,000 million 450,000 trillion years to double the mass of the Earth this way, so again, you might want to pack a lunch. In a year, it’s enough cosmic junk to fill a six-story office building, if that’s a more palatable analogy.

I’ll note the Earth is losing mass, too: the atmosphere is leaking away due to a number of different processes. But this is far slower than the rate of mass accumulation, so the net affect is a gain of mass.

9) Mt. Everest isn’t the biggest mountain.

The height of a mountain may have an actual definition, but I think it’s fair to say that it should be measured from the base to the apex. Mt. Everest stretches 8850 meters above sea level, but it has a head start due to the general uplift from the Himalayas. The Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea is 10,314 meters from stem to stern (um, OK, bad word usagement, but you get my point), so even though it only reaches to 4205 meters above sea level, it’s a bigger mountain than Everest.

Plus, Mauna Kea has telescopes on top of it, so that makes it cooler.

10) Destroying the Earth is hard.

Considering I wrote a book about destroying the Earth a dozen different ways (available for pre-order on!), it turns out the phrase "destroying the Earth" is a bit misleading. I actually write about wiping out life, which is easy. Physically destroying the Earth is hard.

What would it take to vaporize the planet? Let’s define vaporization as blowing it up so hard that it disperses and cannot recollect due to gravity. How much energy would that take?

Think of it this way: take a rock. Throw it up so hard it escapes from the Earth. That takes quite a bit of energy! Now do it again. And again. Lather, rinse, repeat… a quadrillion times, until the Earth is gone. That’s a lot of energy! But we have one advantage: every rock we get rid of decreases the gravity of the Earth a little bit (because the mass of the Earth is smaller by the mass of the rock). As gravity decreases, it gets easier to remove rocks.

You can use math to calculate this; how much energy it takes to remove a rock and simultaneously account for the lowering of gravity. If you make some basic assumptions, it takes roughly 2 x 1032 Joules, or 200 million trillion trillion Joules. That’s a lot. For comparison, that’s the total amount of energy the Sun emits in a week. It’s also about a trillion times the destructive energy yield of detonating every nuclear weapon on Earth.

If you want to vaporize the Earth by nuking it, you’d better have quite an arsenal, and time on your hands. If you blew up every nuclear weapon on the planet once every second, it would take 160,000 years to turn the Earth into a cloud of expanding gas.

And this is only if you account for gravity! There are chemical bonds holding the Earth’s matter together as well, so it takes even more energy.

This is why Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. The Death Star wouldn’t be able to have a weapon that powerful. The energy storage alone is a bit much, even for the power of the Dark Side.

Even giant collisions can’t vaporize the planet. An object roughly the size of Mars impacted the Earth more than 4.5 billion years ago, and the ejected debris formed the Moon (the rest of the collider merged with the Earth). But the Earth wasn’t vaporized. Even smacking a whole planet into another one doesn’t destroy them!

Of course, the collision melted the Earth all the way down to the core, so the damage is, um, considerable. But the Earth is still around.

The Sun will eventually become a red giant (Chapter 7!), and while it probably won’t consume the Earth, it’ll put the hurt on us for sure. But even then, total vaporization is unlikely (though Mercury is doomed).

Planets tend to be sturdy. Good thing, too. We live on one.


Well, that cheery thought brings us to the end of my list of things you may or may not have known about the Earth. I had lots more. How much does the atmosphere weigh? What’s the average mass of a cloud? Stuff like that, but these are the ten I liked best. If you’ve got more, feel free to leave them in the comments!

But remember the main point here: you live on a planet, and you may not know all that much about it. The only cure for that is learning, and that’s driven by wonder. Keep wondering, and keep learning. And don’t forget to look around.


Original billiards images from Fictures.

GOCE image courtesy ESA.

Cruithne animation from Wikipedia.

Mt. Everest original from Joe Hastings.

The nuked Earth image was created by me for my second Q&BA episode.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: 10 Things, Astronomy, Cool stuff

Ten things you don’t know about the Milky Way Galaxy

By Phil Plait | March 12, 2008 9:33 pm

So you’ve lived here all your life — in fact, everyone has — but what do you really know about the Milky Way galaxy? Sure, you know it’s a spiral, and it’s 100,000 light years across. And of course, BABloggees are smarter, more well-read, and better looking than the average population, but be honest: do you know all ten of these things? Really?


So let’s see if these really are Ten Things You Don’t Know About the Milky Way Galaxy.

1) It’s a barred spiral.

You might know that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, perhaps the most beautiful galaxy type. You’ve seen ’em: majestic arms sweeping out from a central hub or bulge of glowing stars. That’s us. But a lot of spirals have a weird feature: a rectangular block of stars at the center instead of a sphere, and the arms radiate away from the ends of the block. Astronomers call this block a bar, and, you guessed it: we have one.

Is fact, ours is pretty big. At 27,000 light years end-to-end, it’s beefier than most bars. Of course, space is a rough neighborhood. Who wouldn’t want a huge bar located right downtown?

By the way, the image above is not a photograph, it’s a drawing– there’s no way to get outside the galaxy and take a picture like this looking back. It would be a loooong walk home! Click the picture to embiggen and get more details (which is true for all the pictures in this post).

2) There’s a supermassive black hole at its heart.

At the very center of the Galaxy, right at its very core, lies a monster: a supermassive black hole.

We know it’s there due to the effect of its gravity. Stars very near the center — some only a few dozen billion kilometers out — orbit the center at fantastic speeds. They scream around their orbits at thousands of kilometers per second, and their phenomenal speed betrays the mass of the object to which they’re enthralled. Applying some fairly basic math, it’s possible to determine that the mass needed to accelerate the stars to those speeds must tip the cosmic scales at four million times the mass of the Sun! Yet in the images, nothing can be seen. So what can be as massive as 4,000,000 Suns and yet not emit any light?

Right. A black hole.

Even though it’s huge, bear in mind that the Galaxy itself is something like 200 billion solar masses strong, so in reality the black hole at the center is only a tiny fraction of the total mass of the Galaxy. And we’re in no danger of plunging into it: after all, it’s 250,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers away.

It’s thought now that a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy forms along with the galaxy itself, and in facts winds blown outward as material falls in affects the formation of stars in the galaxy. So black holes may be dangerous, but it’s entirely possible the Sun’s eventual birth — and the Earth’s along with it — may have been lent a hand by the four million solar mass killer so far away.

3) It’s a cannibal.

Galaxies are big, and have lots of mass. If another, smaller galaxy passes too close by, the bigger galaxy can rip it to shreds and ingest its stars and gas.

The Milky Way is pretty, but it’s savage, too. It’s currently eating several other galaxies. They’ve been ripped into long, curving arcs of stars that orbit the center of the Milky Way. Eventually they’ll merge completely with us, and we’ll be a slightly larger galaxy. Ironically though, the galaxies add their mass to ours, making it more likely we’ll feed again. Eating only makes galaxies hungrier.

4) We live in a nice neighborhood…

The Milky Way is not alone in space. We’re part of a small group of nearby galaxies called — get ready to be shocked — the Local Group. We’re the heaviest guy on the block, and the Andromeda galaxy is maybe a bit less massive, though it’s actually spread out more. The Triangulum galaxy is also a spiral, but not terribly big, and there are other assorted galaxies dotted here and there in the Group. All together, there are something like three dozen galaxies in the Local Group, with most being dinky dwarf galaxies that are incredibly faint and difficult to detect.

5) … and we’re in the suburbs.

The Local Group is small and cozy, and everyone makes sure their lawns are mowed and houses painted nicely. That’s because if you take the long view, we live in the suburbs. The big city in this picture is the Virgo Cluster, a huge collection of about 2000 galaxies, many of which are as large or larger than the Milky Way. It’s the nearest big cluster; the center of it is about 60 million light years away. We appear to be gravitationally bound to it; in other words, we’re a part of it, just far-flung. The total mass of the cluster may be as high as a quadrillion times the mass of the Sun.

6) You can only see 0.000003% percent of it.

When you got out on a dark night, you can see thousands of stars. But the Milky Way has two hundred billion stars in it. You’re only seeing a tiny tiny fraction of the number of stars tooling around the galaxy. In fact, with only a handful of exceptions, the most distant stars you can readily see are 1000 light years away. Worse, most stars are so faint that they are invisible much closer than that; the Sun is too dim to see from farther than about 60 light years away… and the Sun is pretty bright compared to most stars. So the little bubble of stars we can see around us is just a drop in the ocean of the Milky Way.

7) 90% of it is invisible.

When you look at the motions of the stars in our galaxy, you can apply some math and physics and determine how much mass the galaxy has (more mass means more gravity, which means stars will move faster under its influence). You can also count up the number of stars in the galaxy and figure out how much mass they have. Problem is, the two numbers don’t match: stars (and other visible things like gas and dust) make up only 10% of the mass of the galaxy. Where’s the other 90%?

Whatever it is, it has mass, but doesn’t glow. So we call it Dark Matter, for lack of a better term (and it’s actually pretty accurate). We know it’s not black holes, dead stars, ejected planets, cold gas — those have all been searched for, and marked off the list — and the candidates that remain get pretty weird (like WIMPs). But we know it’s real, and we know it’s out there. We just don’t know what it is. Smart people are trying to figure that out, and given the findings in recent years, I bet we’re less than a decade from their success.

8) Spiral arms are an illusion.

Well, they’re not an illusion per se, but the number of stars in the spiral arms of our galaxy isn’t really very different than the number between the arms! The arms are like cosmic traffic jams, regions where the local density is enhanced. Like a traffic jam on a highway, cars enter and leave the jam, but the jam itself stays. The arms have stars entering and leaving, but the arms themselves persist (that’s why they don’t wind up like twine on a spindle).

Just like on highways, too, there are fender benders. Giant gas clouds can collide in the arms, which makes them collapse and form stars. The vast majority of these stars are faint, low mass, and very long-lived, so they eventually wander out of the arms. But some rare stars are very massive, hot, and bright, and they illuminate the surrounding gas. These stars don’t live very long, and they die (bang!) before they can move out of the arms. Since the gas clouds in the arms light up this way, it makes the spiral arms more obvious.

We see the arms because the light is better there, not because that’s where all the stars are.

9) It’s seriously warped.

The Milky Way is a flat disk roughly 100,000 light years across and a few thousand light years thick (depending on how you measure it). It has the same proportion as a stack of four DVDs, if that helps.

Have you ever left a DVD out in the Sun? It can warp as it heats up, getting twisted (old vinyl LPs used to be very prone to this). The Milky Way has a similar warp!

The disk is bent, warped, probably due to the gravitational influence of a pair of orbiting satellite galaxies. One side of the disk is bent up, if you will, and the other down. In a sense, it’s like a ripple in the plane of the Milky Way. It’s not hard to spot in other galaxies; grab an image of the Andromeda galaxy and take a look. At first it’s hard to see, but if you cover the inner part you’ll suddenly notice the disk is flared up on the left and down on the right. Andromeda has satellite galaxies too, and they warp its disk just like our satellite galaxies warp ours.

As far as I can tell, the warp doesn’t really affect us at all. It’s just a cool thing you may not know about the Milky Way. Hey, that would make a good blog entry!

10) We’re going to get to know the Andromeda galaxy a lot better.

Speaking of Andromeda, have you ever seen it in the sky? It’s visible to the naked eye on a clear, dark, moonless night (check your local listings). It’s faint, but big; it’s four or more degrees across, eight times the apparent size of the Moon on the sky.

If that doesn’t seem too big, then give it, oh, say, two billion years. Then you’ll have a much better view.

The Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way are approaching each other, two cosmic steam engines chugging down the tracks at each other at 200 kilometers per second. Remember when I said big galaxies eat small ones? Well, when two big galaxies smack into each other, you get real fireworks. Stars don’t physically collide; they’re way too small on this scale. But gas clouds can, and like I said before, when they do they form stars. So you get a burst of star formation, lighting up the two galaxies.

In the meantime, the mutual gravity of the two galaxies draw out long tendrils from the other, making weird, delicate arcs and filaments of stars and gas. It’s beautiful, really, but it indicates violence on an epic scale.

Eventually (it takes a few billion years), the two galaxies will merge, and will become, what, Milkomeda? Andromeway? Well, whatever, they form a giant elliptical galaxy when they finally settle down. In fact, the Sun will still be around when this happens; it won’t have yet become a red giant. Will our descendants witness the biggest collision in the history of the galaxy?

That’s cool to think about. Incidentally, I talk about this event a whole lot more, and in a lot more detail, in my upcoming book Death from the Skies! In case you forgot about that.

Until then, these Ten Things should keep you occupied. And of course, I only wanted to list ten things so I could give this post the cool title. But if there’s something you find surprising about the Milky Way, leave a comment! I don’t want to hog all the fun.


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