A Tug at The Ol’ Gravity Strings

“Why, Jeremy, you’ve got such a stunned look on your face. What happened? Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Sorry, Mr Moire. I guess I’ve been thinking too much about this science fiction story I just read. Which gelato can I scoop for you?”

“Two dips of mint, in a cup. Eddie went heavy with the garlic on my pizza this evening. What got to you in the story?”

“The central plot device. Here’s your gelato. In the story, someone locates a rogue black hole hiding in the asteroid belt. Tiny, maybe a few thousandths of a millimeter across, but awful heavy. A military‑industrial combine uses a space tug to tow it to Earth orbit for some kind of energy source, but their magnetic grapple slips and the thing falls to Earth. Except it doesn’t just fall to Earth, it’s so small it falls into Earth and now it’s orbiting inside, eating away the core until everything crumbles in. I can’t stop thinking about that.”

“Sounds pretty bad, but it might help if we run the numbers.” <drawing Old Reliable from its holster> “First thing — Everything about a black hole depends on its mass, so just how massive is this one?” <tapping on Old Reliable’s screen with gelato spoon> “For round numbers let’s say its diameter is 0.002 millimeter. The Schwartzschild ‘radius’ r is half that. Solve Schwartschild’s r=2GM/c² equation for the mass … plug in that r‑value … mass is 6.7×1020 kilograms. That’s about 1% of the Moon’s mass. Heavy indeed. How did they find this object?”

“The story didn’t say. Probably some asteroid miner stumbled on it.”

“Darn lucky stumble, something only a few microns across. Not likely to transit the Sun or block light from any stars unless you’re right on top of it. Radiation from its accretion disk? Depends on the history — there’s a lot of open space in the asteroid belt but just maybe the beast encountered enough dust to form one. Probably not, though. Wait, how about Hawking radiation?”

“Oh, right, Stephen Hawking’s quantum magic trick that lets a black hole radiate light from just outside its Event Horizon. Does Old Reliable have the formulas for that?”

“Sure. From Hawking’s work we know the object’s temperature and that gives us its blackbody spectrum, then we’ve got the Bekenstein‑Hawking equation for the power it radiates. Mind you, the spectrum will be red‑shifted to some extent because those photons have to crawl out of a gravity well, but this’ll give us a first cut.” <more tapping> “Chilly. 170 kelvins, that’s 100⁰C below room temperature. Most of its sub‑nanowatt emission will be at far infrared wavelengths. A terrible beacon. But suppose someone did find this thing. I wonder what’ll it take to move it here.”

“Can you calculate that?”

“Roughly. Suppose your space tug follows the cheapest possible flight path from somewhere near Ceres. Assuming the tug itself has negligible mass … ” <more tapping> “Whoa! That is literally an astronomical amount of delta-V. Not anything a rocket could do. Never mind. But where were they planning to put the object? What level orbit?”

“Well, it’s intended to beam power down to Earth. Ions in the Van Allen Belts would soak up a lot of the energy unless they station it below the Belts. Say 250 miles up along with the ISS.”

“Hoo boy! A thousand times closer than the Moon. Force is inverse to distance squared, remember. Wait, that’s distance to the center and Earth’s radius is about 4000 miles so the 250 miles is on top of that. 250,000 divided by 4250 … quotient squared … is a distance factor of almost 3500. Put 1% of the Moon that close to the Earth and you’ve got ocean tides 36 times stronger than lunar tides. Land does tides, too, so there’d be earthquakes. Um. The ISS is on a 90‑minute orbit so you’d have those quakes and ocean tides sixteen times a day. I wouldn’t worry about the black hole hollowing out the Earth, the tidal effect alone would do a great job of messing us up.”

“The whole project is such a bad idea that no-one would or could do it. I feel better now.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Three Perils for a Quest(ion), Part 1

Eddie makes great pizzas but Jeremy thinks they stay in the oven just a little too long.  As he crunched an extra-crispy wedge-edge he mused, “Gravity aside, I wonder what it’d be like to land on a black hole.  I bet it’d be real slippery if it’s as smooth as Mr Moire says.”

Jennie cut in.  “Don’t be daft, lad.  Everyone’s read about the spaceman sliding through the event horizon unaware until it’s too late.  Someone far away sees the bloke’s spacetime getting all distorted but in his local frame of reference everything’s right as rain.  Right, Sy?”

“As rain, Jennie, if all you’re concerned about is relativity.  But Spaceman Jeremy has lots of other things to be concerned about on his way to the event horizon.  Which he couldn’t stand on anyway.”

“Why not, Mr Moire?  I mean, I said ‘gravity aside’ so I ought to be able to stand up.”

“Nothing to stand on, Jeremy.  It’d be like trying to stand on Earth’s orbit.”

“Pull the other one, Sy.  How can they be alike?”

“Both of them are mathematical constructs rather than physical objects.  An orbit is an imaginary line that depicts planet or satellite locations.  An event horizon is an imaginary figure enclosing a region with such intense spacetime curvature that time points inward.  They’re abstract objects, not  concrete ones.  But let’s get back to Jeremy’s black hole evaporation quest.  He’ll have to pass three perils.”

“Ooo, a Quest with Perils —  loverly.  What are the Perils then?”

“The Roche Radius, the Photon Sphere and the Firewall.  Got your armor on, Jeremy?”Astronaut and 3xBlack hole

“Ready, Mr Moire.”

“Stand up.  The Roche effect is all about gravitational discrepancy between two points.  The two meter distance between your head and feet isn’t enough for a perceptible difference in downward pull.  However, when we deal with astronomical distances the differences can get significant.  For instance, ocean water on the day side of Earth is closer to the Sun and experiences a stronger sunward pull than water on the night side.”

“Ah, so that’s why we get tides.”

“Right.  Sit, sit, sit.  So in 1849 Édouard Roche wondered how close two objects could get until tidal forces pulled one of them apart.  He supposed the two objects were both just balls of rocks or fluid held together by gravity.  Applying Newton’s Laws and some approximations he got a formula for threshold distance in terms of the big guy’s mass and the little guy’s density.  Suppose you’re held together only by gravity and you’re nearing the Sun feet-first.  Its mass is 2×1030 kg/m³.  Even including your space armor, your average density is about 1.5 kg/m³.  According to Roche’s formula, if you got closer than 8.6×106 kilometers your feet would break away and fall into the Sun before the rest of you would.  Oh, that distance is about 1/7 the radius of Mercury’s orbit so it’s pretty close in.”

“But we’re talking black holes here.  What if the Sun collapses to a black hole?”

“Surprisingly, it’s exactly the same distance.  The primary’s operative property is its mass, not its diameter.  Good thing Jeremy’s really held together by atomic and molecular electromagnetism, which is much stronger than gravity.  Which brings us to his second Peril, the dreaded Photon Sphere.”

“Should I shudder, Sy?”

“Go ahead, Jennie.  The Sphere is another mathematical object, not something physical you’d collide with, Jeremy.  It’s a zero-thickness shell representing where electromagnetic waves can orbit a massive object like a black hole or a neutron star.  Waves can penetrate the shell easily in either direction, but if one happens to fly in exactly along a tangent, it’s trapped on the Sphere.”

“That’s photons.  Why is it a peril to me?”

“Remember that electromagnetism that holds you together?  Photons carry that force.  Granted, in a molecule they’re standing waves rather than the free waves we see with.  The math is impossible, but here’s the Peril.  Suppose one of your particularly important molecules happens to lie tangent to the Sphere while you’re traversing it.  Suddenly, the forces holding that molecule together fly away from you at the speed of light.  And that disruption inexorably travels along your body as you proceed on your Quest.”

[both shudder]

~~ Rich Olcott