Tag Archives: space

How to Look at the Back of Your Head Using a Black Hole


A black hole is created when matter is compressed into such a small volume that the gravitational field that it creates becomes so strong that light cannot escape. The size that an object needs to be compressed to is called the Schwarzschild radius, and is given by a simple equation:

r_S = \frac{2GM}{c^2}

where r is the Schwarzschild radius, G is the constant of universal gravitation, M is the mass of the object, and c is the speed of light. There is no lower limit to the mass M involved: even the Earth could become a black hole if it were compressed into a ball less than eighteen millimetres across.

A black hole has no physical size (it is a singularity) but the “edge” of a black hole is usually taken to be its event horizon: the point beyond which even light cannot escape. The distance of the event horizon from “centre” of a black hole is equal to the black hole’s Schwarzschild radius. If some familiar objects from our solar system were to become black holes, their event horizons would be as follows:

Object Event Horizon
Earth 8.87 mm
Saturn 84.4 cm
Jupiter 2.82 m
Sun 2.95 km

Objects will orbit a black hole just as they would orbit any other object with mass. If our Sun were to spontaneously become a black hole, the orbit of the planets in the solar system would be unaffected.

The closer an orbiting object is to the object it is orbiting, the faster it has to be travelling. That sentence is a bit difficult to understand, so I’ll explain it with an example: moving the Earth closer and closer to the Sun.

Distance Sun to Earth /AU Required orbital speed /km/s
1.00 29.8
0.75 34.4
0.50 42.2
0.25 59.6

Eventually we get so close to the Sun that the speed required to remain in orbit becomes equal to the speed of light. This means that only photons (which travel at the speed of light) could orbit, and in fact, would orbit. Any photons that bounced off the back of your head would travel in a circular orbit around the black hole and end up at your eyes – you’d be able to look directly at the back of your head without using mirrors!

This effect is called a photon sphere, and can definitely exist around black holes.* It is also possible that a neutron star could be so compact that a photon sphere could exist, but this has never been observed.

* Around a rotating black hole there would be two photon spheres due to frame dragging: one would be closer, with the direction of orbit being the same as the direction of rotation, and one would be further away, with the direction of orbit being opposite to the direction of rotation.

Hohmann Transfers

The Hohmann transfer is an orbital manoeuvre used to transfer a satellite between two different circular orbits.

On the left, the two circular orbits between which the transfer will take place. On the right, the elliptical Hohmann transfer orbit.

The orbit of the lower (blue) orbit has the lowest energy (i.e. the specific orbital energy) of the three, the Hohmann transfer orbit has a higher energy than that, and the highest (orange) orbit has the greatest energy of the three.  The gravitational potential and kinetic energies of the initial and final circular orbits are fairly constant, but the gravitational potential and kinetic energies of the Hohmann transfer orbit vary substantially as the orbiting object transfers gravitational potential to kinetic as it approaches Earth and vice versa.


The Hohmann transfer takes place along (half of) an elliptical orbit with one half of the ellipse touching the lower orbit and the other half touching the higher orbit. Two different thruster impulses are used: one to move it onto the elliptical orbit, and then a second one to move it onto the higher orbit. Each time the thruster is fired this increases the kinetic energy of the satellite, which is then transferred to the gravitational potential energy of its new orbit. Because orbits are reversible, moving from a higher orbit to a lower orbit still involves two impulses, but they are in a direction opposite to the motion of the satellite, causing it to decrease in speed and “fall” into the lower orbit.

Real and Apparent Weightlessness

The strength of the gravitational field at Earth’s surface g is 9.81 newtons per kilogram. This means that every kilogram of mass feels a force of 9.81 newtons pulling it downwards towards the centre of Earth.

As you climb higher and higher, the value of g becomes smaller and smaller. At the peak of Mount Everest, g?=?9.79?N/kg, and at the summit of Chimborazo, the farthest point from Earth’s centre, g?=?9.78?N/kg.

So what is the value of g aboard the International Space Station, in orbit around Earth? You would be forgiven for thinking that the answer is 0?N/kg, because the environment the astronauts are in is often described as “zero-g”, but this is not the case. The value of g aboard the ISS is actually 8.65?N/kg, only 12% less than on Earth’s surface.

zero-g-appleAn apple floats in mid-air aboard the ISS.

The astronauts aboard the ISS experience apparent weightlessness, not true weightlessness. The reason they appear to be in a zero-g environment is only because they are in orbit around the Earth – if the ISS were to slow to a halt it would fall towards Earth just like an object on Earth’s surface (though it’d fall a little bit slower at first).

In orbit the ISS is falling towards Earth at just the same rate as Earth is curving away, keeping it at a constant distance from Earth’s surface.* Because astronauts are in constant freefall they don’t push against the “floor” and the “floor” doesn’t push against them and therefore they feel weightless. If you’ve ever felt a little bit lighter in a lift as it started to move downwards, just imagine that effect taken to an extreme in a lift shaft where you can never hit the bottom.


Even geostationary satellites, like those that supply satellite TV, at a distance of 36000 km from Earth aren’t in zero-g. If they weren’t within Earth’s gravitational field they wouldn’t orbit and would fly off into space; for geostationary satellites g?=?0.224?N/kg.

The closest human beings have ever been to true zero-g is on the way to the Moon, at the point at which the gravitational pull of the Earth in one direction was equal to the gravitational pull of the Moon in the other direction. Because the mass of the Moon is about 1/81 of the mass of the Earth and the strength of a body’s gravitational field depends on the square of the distance from the body this point is about nine-tenths of the distance between the two: 346?000 km from Earth. At this point the pull from the Earth is 0.0032?g and the pull from the Moon is the same, but in the other direction.

* Imagine a giant cannon firing horizontally: too slow and the cannon ball will hit the ground, too quick and the cannon ball will fly off into space. But if the cannon fires at just the right speed the cannon ball will drop towards the ground at just the same rate as the ground curves away.

Lagrange points

In a system of two bodies, where one mass is much larger than the other (such as the Sun and Earth, or the Earth and Moon), there are five points, known as the Lagrange points, where the resultant gravitational field is such that it provides the centripetal force for that object to remain in constant orbit with those two bodies.*

What this means is that an object – such as a satellite – placed at a Lagrange point will remain at that point (relative to the two bodies) without need for any external force such as that provided by rocket or ion thrusters.

For example an object placed at point L1 in the diagram below will always remain between the Earth and the Sun and an object at L2 will always remain in the Earth’s shadow.


The five Lagrange points of the Sun-Earth system. The white lines are gravitational contour lines: an object in free-fall would trace out a path along one of these contours.


L1 is probably the easiest Lagrange point to understand. In the diagram above the Sun pulls towards the left, and the Earth pulls to the right, and the resultant force is just right to keep it in orbit between the Sun and Earth.

The L1 point is ideal for making observations of the Sun-Earth system as satellites placed here are never in the shadow of either the Sun or the Earth. The SOHO, ACE and WIND satellites are all positioned at L1.


L2 is a good site for space-based observatories as it is almost perfectly protected from solar radiation and doesn’t receive any light pollution from Earth. The Planck telescope is currently at L2, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to be placed there in 2018, and the WMAP and Herschel satellites were also previously positioned there.


No satellites are currently positioned at L3, as it lies about 300 million kilometres from Earth. It has been suggested as a useful site for solar activity monitoring, as it would be able to spot any activity likely to affect Earth (sunspots, etc.) before the side of the Sun containing that activity was pointed towards Earth.

L3 is also popular in science fiction, as a place to “hide” something from Earth. After the development of interplanetary probes we checked and unfortunately there’s nothing there (yet).

L4 and L5

The L4 and L5 points lie at a 60° angle from the Sun-Earth axis, at the furthermost point of an equilateral triangle formed by the Sun and the Earth. Because this point is the same distance from both the Sun and Earth the ratio of their gravitational pulls is the same as if it were at the barycentre of the Sun-Earth system and objects placed there remain stationary. No satellites are currently placed at either point.

The Trojan asteroids are located at the L4 and L5 points of the Jupiter-Sun system. Asteroids are constantly being transferred between the asteroid belt and these two points.

* Lagrange points exist for any two-body system in which one object is much more massive than the other, but I’ll only be looking at the Sun-Earth system.

Solar eclipse types

The word “eclipse” is a general astronomical term that applies to any situation in which the view of one object is blocked by another, caused either by the second object’s shadow falling over the first, or by the second object coming in between the first object and the observer.

In general use the term eclipse usually applies to one of two situations: a solar eclipse, in which the Moon obscures our view of the Sun; or a lunar eclipse in which the Earth’s shadow falls over the Moon. The planes in which the Earth orbits the Sun and which the Moon orbits the Earth are at an angle to each other, which is why there is not a total solar eclipse once every month.

There are three types of solar eclipse:

  • A total eclipse, in which the Moon appears the same size as the Sun and blocks light from it completely.
  • An annular eclipse, in which the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth but because of the relative distances of each it appears slightly smaller than the Sun, causing a ring of light to appear.
  • A partial eclipse, in which the orbits of the Moon and Sun are such that the Moon only covers only part of the Sun.


A comparison of a total solar eclipse (left) and an annular eclipse (right). Only in the case of a total solar eclipse is the Sun’s corona (the white “cloud”) visible.


A diagram showing how the three different types of eclipse are formed.

There are also hybrid eclipses, which appear as total eclipses to some parts of the Earth and an annular eclipse to other parts. These are very rare, with the most recent in April 2005 and visible mainly from the Pacific Ocean and also Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela; and the next to occur in November 2013, visible from Central Africa (Gabon, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia).