- There's more than one way to make a black hole, says NASA's Michelle Thaller. They're not always formed from dead stars. For example, there are teeny tiny black holes all around us, the result of high-energy cosmic rays slamming into our atmosphere with enough force to cram matter together so densely that no light can escape.
CERN is trying to create artificial black holes right now, but don't worry, it's not dangerous. Scientists there are attempting to smash two particles together with such intensity that it creates a black hole that would live for just a millionth of a second.
- Thaller uses a brilliant analogy involving a rubber sheet, a marble, and an elephant to explain why different black holes have varying densities. Watch and learn!
- Bonus fact: If the Earth became a black hole, it would be crushed to the size of a ping-pong ball.
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So Mark, you have a great question about black holes: Is there a minimum mass needed for a black hole to form and does a black hole form whenever a stellar object gets that dense?
To begin with, let's talk about the definition of a black hole. Now, most commonly people talk about black holes as being a consequence of a giant star dying. And the idea is that a star has this huge mass and that's a lot of gravity crushing the star together. Now, when the star is alive and there are fusion reactions going on inside the core, that crush of gravity is actually held up. But once the star dies and the fusion reactions go away the gravity crushes inward and there's nothing to support it anymore. So basically gravity becomes so strong in that object that not even light can escape and therefore we call it a black hole. That's probably the most classic way to make a black hole, is you actually make it from the core of a dead star that's collapsing.
But you might be surprised to learn that we actually think there are other ways to make a black hole. And the real answer to your question is that there is no minimum mass needed for a black hole, you just need to have the right density for an object's gravity to be so intense that light can't escape. The universe is very good at making black holes that are about the size of stars; it's an easy way to get them. But the universe makes black holes in other ways too. We actually think there are black holes being generated all around us on very, very small scales. There are things called high-energy cosmic rays — very, very energetic particles that slam into our atmosphere from space. These slam in with enough energy that we think they actually create tiny black holes, black holes that have the mass only a couple of atoms. There's enough energy to cram that matter together so much they form little black holes...