One of the most cherished science fiction scenarios is using a black hole as a portal to another dimension or time or universe. That fantasy may be closer to reality than previously imagined.
Black holes are perhaps the most mysterious objects in the universe. They are the consequence of gravity crushing a dying star without limit, leading to the formation of a true singularity – which happens when an entire star gets compressed down to a single point yielding an object with infinite density. This dense and hot singularity punches a hole in the fabric of spacetime itself, possibly opening up an opportunity for hyperspace travel. That is, a short cut through spacetime allowing for travel over cosmic scale distances in a short period.
Researchers previously thought that any spacecraft attempting to use a black hole as a portal of this type would have to reckon with nature at its worst. The hot and dense singularity would cause the spacecraft to endure a sequence of increasingly uncomfortable tidal stretching and squeezing before being completely vaporized.
Flying through a black hole
My team at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a colleague at Georgia Gwinnett College have shown that all black holes are not created equal. If the black hole like Sagittarius A*, located at the center of our own galaxy, is large and rotating, then the outlook for a spacecraft changes dramatically. That’s because the singularity that a spacecraft would have to contend with is very gentle and could allow for a very peaceful passage.
The reason that this is possible is that the relevant singularity inside a rotating black hole is technically “weak,” and thus does not damage objects that interact with it. At first, this fact may seem counter intuitive. But one can think of it as analogous to the common experience of quickly passing one’s finger through a candle’s near 2,000-degree flame, without getting burned.
My colleague Lior Burko and I have been investigating the physics of black holes for over two decades. In 2016, my Ph.D. student, Caroline Mallary, inspired by Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film “Interstellar,” set out to test if Cooper (Matthew McConaughey’s character), could survive his fall deep into Gargantua – a fictional, supermassive, rapidly rotating black hole some 100 million times the mass of our sun. “Interstellar” was based on a book written by Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Kip Thorne and Gargantua’s physical properties are central to the plot of this Hollywood movie.
Building on work done by physicist Amos Ori two decades prior, and armed with her strong computational skills, Mallary built a computer model that would capture most of the essential physical effects on a spacecraft, or any large object, falling into a large, rotating black hole like Sagittarius A*.