Could We Live On A Planet Orbiting A Black Hole?

Can life exist near a black hole? Exploring the possibility of a planet orbiting a black hole. Discover this intriguing concept from a scientific perspective.

Video of the day December 23rd 2019


Could life exist near a black hole? Some scientists seem to think this might just be possible, but is it really? Join me as we explore the notion of a planet orbiting a black hole.

Defining A Black Hole

I’m sure the mere idea of being around a black hole and surviving there is ludicrous to some of you, and…that’s not a bad reaction to the topic if we’re being honest here. So before we dive into how this MIGHT work, let’s talk about black holes and why they’re not something ANYONE would want to orbit if it can be helped.

If you’re looking for a definitive explanation or phrasing of what is a black hole, this is how NASA describes them:

“A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen when a star is dying.” We talked about in this articole.

This singularity as it is often called is a bit of a mystery in space, and for a very good reason. You see, black holes can form in large sizes, small sizes, and sometimes they don’t even need a fully fledged star to form at all! Which is scary in the sense that it means black holes can form in various ways.

Plus, since no light can actually escape them, it means that they can’t technically be seen by  anyone. That being said, it’s easy to “see their work”, as the intense gravity of the Black Holes is enough to stretch objects from their “starting point” and slowly pull them to the Black Hole. This is known as spaghettification, because like a stretched piece of spaghetti, the object will get thinner and thinner until nothings exists but particles. And if you think that a Black Hole is limited in what it can absorb, you would be wrong. Very wrong in fact. If it is close enough, it’ll break down a star, a planet, multiple stars and planets at once, etc. It’s a question of range more than anything.

But there’s a catch to that, as you won’t be able to observe the spaghettification yourself. Why? Remember, no light escapes the void that is the Black Hole, so because of that, you’ll see the last known position of the object that light allows you to see. It’ll seem like they’re stuck in place and slowly going away until they’re gone. When in fact, they or it will be slowly pulled apart. 

So just based on that alone you can see why Black Holes aren’t just an entity in space, they’re something to be feared by every living thing, and NASA is trying to map them all out in the universe as best they can so that we don’t get caught up in them at any point in time.

And yet, there are some who are wondering if a planet that has humanity, or alien life, can survive orbiting a black hole…what brainiac came up with that idea?

The “Interstellar” Question

Well, not surprisingly, it was a movie that sparked this debate into motion, and also not surprisingly, this movie came from the mind of one of the most clever and unique filmmakers in the business today in Christopher Nolan. I of course speak of the film Interstellar.

In the movie, NASA is desperate to try and find another planet that could house life outside of our solar system. But in a twist, instead of sending people to planets that are “basic” or might just have enough to support life, they find a trio of planets that are surrounding a…you guessed it…black hole. But not just any black hole, they are orbiting a Supermassive Black Hole. Which are ones that can be the size of galaxies, or even MANY galaxies depending on the one we’re talking about.

“But wait a minute,” you say, “if it’s just a movie, why are we taking it seriously?” Ok, remember Christopher Nolan? He doesn’t just like to do movies, he likes to do movies that make you think, and with Interstellar, while it was very sci-fi in some of its concepts, it did base everything in current modern science. So much so that they had a book called “The Science of Interstellar” written by famed theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Detailing all the things in the movie and whether they were possible or real. And more of it was real than you might expect.

Because of this, and how everything was portrayed in the movie, many people really did start to wonder if a planet orbiting a black hole could in fact survive, and life thrive there.

The Distance Question

Obviously though, for this example, we need to define something REALLY important, and that would be the distance between us and the black hole. And by “Us” I mean the planet that we’re saying could house life.

Because as I outlined in the earlier segment, Black Holes are notorious for the amount of gravity that they have. So much so that ANYTHING that gets caught in it will be slowly ripped apart and turned into atoms…very…very…slowly.

So in truth, IF this was to work, we’d need to be sure we’re on the literal outer limits of a black hole, regardless of its size. Is that possible? Technically…yes. All things being equal, there is a fair enough situation that would allow a planet to be JUST on the outer edge of a black hole to not just orbit it, but not be affected by it. The question then would be, not unlike certain other bodies around massive gravity fields, would the orbit of the planet slowly dip into the black hole after a certain amount of time?

If you don’t get that reference, I speak to how the moon above is actually getting farther and farther away from the Earth every year. Sure, it’s not by much, but it is moving away. So now imagine that this “black hole planet” was on the perfect orbit around the entity and then it got into its pull. That would be bad…really bad.

And believe it or not, a couple of sci-fi TV shows have depicted what would happen if a planet or colony got sucked into a black hole…and it’s trippy stuff.

The Doctor Who Example

Alright, let’s get cosmic. In the beloved BBC series “Doctor Who”, there was a two-part episode where Doctor Who (in this iteration played by Peter Capaldi) and his companion Bill found themselves looking at a massive colony ship that is caught in the confines of a black hole. The episode is called “World Enough and Time” if you want to watch it, as well as “The Doctor Falls” as the finale.

Anyway, this particular situation was unique in several ways. First off, this colony ship was 400 miles long (that’s important, so keep it in mind!) and the ship was doing its best to keep out of the black hole by reversing course (the bridge section was nearest to the black hole) and holding steady there. They couldn’t escape the black hole, but they weren’t getting sucked in fully by it. You follow?

So, here’s where things get trippy, and yet scientific. Because when The Doctor and Bill go to the ship, they meet one man. The “last man” on the original crew who is desperately trying to get away. But to their horror, there are actually MORE people on the ship, including some beings that no one knows how they got there.

…how did they get there? Remember how I told you that black holes absorb light? Well, in this instance, it’s not just absorbing light, but they’re absorbing space (which a black hole technically does) in such a way that the relationship to time is being dilated (remember that, it’ll be important in a future topic!). Thus, the people at the back of the ship, where the Doctor, Bill, and the final crew member, are experiencing time at a different rate than those who are at the bridge…and thus when we go to that part of the ship, we find that the colony ship has become a whole freaking city!

Because to them, it’s been hundreds of years since the ship got caught in the black hole. Possible? Theoretically. Which is another reason why the distance to a black hole is so important, because would you want that to happen to one half of the planet while the other half is experiencing time “normally”? I didn’t think so.

black hole

The Lost In Space Example

For an example of a black hole messing with a planet that is orbiting it in another way, and a more dangerous way, you need to look at the recent reboot of Lost In Space on Netflix. The show focuses on an Earth that is ravaged by an incident and so they look to space to save the human race. But, as this is a sci-fi show, something goes wrong with the colony ship, and many survivors are stranded on a planet that is habitable…but something feels off.

Maureen Robinson notices that the weather patterns on the planet are atypical to one that is paired with the sun that they have. So…she decided to take a balloon ride into space (which yes, can happen and has happened in the past) and find out that the sun they’re orbiting is alongside a small black hole. This sun is getting absorbed by the black hole, and that means that the planet isn’t just unstable, it’s unsafe, and they won’t be able to live there for too long.

This is actually another scientifically plausible explanation of a black hole affecting a planet in a non-absorbing way. Because the size of this particular black hole (alongside the distance to the planet) wasn’t enough to affect the planet directly. But the sun? Yeah, that’s a different story. For those curious, they did make it off the planet in time, but then the Robinsons got sucked into another galaxy…and that’s another topic entirely.

But given both the Doctor Who and Lost In Space examples of what would happen if something got near a black hole in part or in full, one has to ask…

o Why Do People Think It Could Work?

Yeah, that does seem to be the question, doesn’t it? How in the heck are we supposed to survive orbiting a black hole? After all, wouldn’t that mean that we’re not orbiting a sun? And if we’re not orbiting a sun…how are we supposed to get light, warmth, and energy in order to survive?

Believe it or not, if done properly, the black hole would be able to provide that. Because part of a black hole is an “accretion disk”, which can be helpful according to certain papers, “[a]ccreting stellar-mass black holes are the brightest X-ray sources in the sky, and accreting supermassive black holes are the most luminous persistent sources in the universe.”

What that means in less science-y terms is that if we were placed in the accretion disk of a black hole, the x-rays and other radiation of the black hole would give us the light and warmth we would need. Of coruse…there’s a downside to that… “all-pervasive blackbody radiation background would probably not be very conducive to complex life.”

Meaning we’d die. Like really badly. Yet, scientists thing they know how they could make this work via a reverse Dyson Sphere. I won’t explain it, but let’s just say it would be a protective layer around the planet that would allow us to keep the good parts of the radiation, and leave everything else behind.

But there’s another reason they think this could work, and it’s because…of Interstellar.

The Interstellar Example

In Interstellar, after going to the planets that were surrounding the black hole, they realized that the time dilation effect on the planet was in effect in the best and worst way possible. Mainly in that for every few hours that they were on the planet, years were being done outside of the black holes influence. Kind of like Doctor Who did in a grander sense.

This is the reason people think it COULD work, because if the dilation is just enough, the colony could potentially last on its own while more supplies and people and such are coming back, and when they return, it won’t feel like they’ve been gone very long.

Granted, that’s assuming a LOT of things go right, but…it’s possible. Not to mention, IF the colony, and subsequent cities are able to last on the planet governed by the black hole, it would mean that they could last a long, LONG time before the black hole would have any series non-time related effects on them. They would be in its “protective bubble” if you will, and as long as they stayed where they were, and not get closer, they could last a potentially long time.

Why Even Try To Imagine This?

At this point, you must think it’s crazy that scientists of ANY kind are thinking of this kind of thing happening. I mean, you have a better chance of finding a one in a million kind of object than something like a habitable planet orbiting a black hole and NOT dying a horrible death, right? So why even ask these kinds of questions when the answers are long-shots, theoretical, or just plain bad?

Simple, this is how we test ourselves. This is how we start to piece together the universe based on what we know. We need to ask these questions because while they may seem stupid, while they may seem impossible, it gets us to think about things like time dilation, accretion discs, the effects of x-rays, and more.

And who knows? Maybe one of these thought experiments will help in making some new, including something that could get us to a REAL new habitable planet.

So yeah, this whole thing might have started via a sci-fi movie…but who knows where these talks will lead us?

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