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Life Cycles of Stars (Grades 9-12) - Page 4

C. Black Holes

Black holes are objects so dense that not even light can escape their gravity and, since nothing can travel faster than light, nothing can escape from inside a black hole. Nevertheless, there is now a great deal of observational evidence for the existence of two types of black holes: those with masses of a typical star (4-15 times the mass of our Sun), and those with masses of a typical galaxy. This evidence comes not from seeing the black holes directly, but by observing the behavior of stars and other material near them!

Galaxy-mass black holes are found in Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). They are thought to have the mass of about 10 to 100 billion Suns! The mass of one of these supermassive black holes has recently been measured using radio astronomy. X-ray observations of iron in the accretion disks may actually be showing the effects of massive black holes as well.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Probe of the Universe

All objects in our Universe emit, reflect, and absorb electromagnetic radiation in their own distinctive ways. The way an object does this provides it special characteristics which scientists can use to probe an object´┐Żs composition, temperature, density, age, motion, distance, and other chemical and physical characteristics. Astronomers can time events (for instance, recording exactly when a binary star system is eclipsed and for how long), can obtain the energy distribution of a source (by passing its electromagnetic radiation through a prism or grating to break it into component colors), or can record the appearance of a source (such as taking an image of the source). These three methods are by no means exclusive of each other, but each reveals different aspects of a source and each method gives the astronomer slightly different information.

While the night sky has always served as a source of wonder and mystery, it has only been in the past few decades that we have had the tools to look at the Universe over the entire electromagnetic (EM) spectrum and see it in all of its glory. Once we were able to use space-based instruments to examine infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray emissions, we found objects that were otherwise invisible to us (e.g., black holes and neutron stars). A "view from space" is critical since radiation in these ranges cannot penetrate the Earth's atmosphere. Many objects in the heavens "light up" with wavelengths too short or too long for the human eye to see, and most objects can only be fully understood by combining observations of behavior and appearance in different regions of the EM spectrum.

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A service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA/GSFC

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