NGC 1277's Supermassive Black Hole
How better to top off the ultimate space-time sightseeing trip than with a slow plunge into a realm where time and space get tied into the physics equivalent of balloon animals?
We're referring, of course, to a black hole -- a supermassive one. Go big or go home, right? Sure, but there's a better reason: In a smaller black hole, your trip would zip by in an eyeblink; even assuming you could survive its steeper 1-million-G taffy-pull of tidal forces, you would hit the singularity just 0.0001 seconds after flashing across the event horizon. Conversely, in supermassive black holes, the event horizon's gravity "slope" is much gentler -- less than one Earth gravity -- and the trip lasts entire seconds. So welcome to the most monstrous black hole yet found, the 17-billion-solar-mass monster that dominates the galaxy NGC 1277 [sources: Crockett; Hamilton].
As you fall on your slow curve, the starfield takes on the colorful whorls of soap bubbles. Space-time tricks your binocular vision, twisting and jumbling light. Finally, just before known physics takes a permanent powder, the universe crushes down into a halo of blue light, bookended above and below by spectral redshifts [source: Hamilton].
After that, who knows? You're in a ship that defies physics, in a region of space that breaks its laws. Anything is possible, so bring a clean change of underwear and, wherever you end up, start your own list of places to see. We're counting on you.
Author's Note: 10 Space Landmarks We'd Like to Visit
When compiling a list so close to my heart, the hardest part is settling on only 10 destinations. Had I had more space, I might have recommended visiting the crater-cutting cliff of Mercury's Beagle Rupes, or seeing what destruction Venus' temperatures and pressures have wrought on the Venera probes. Moon-wise, I'd have dispatched you to Jupiter's Ganymede, which is so large (three-quarters the size of Mars) that it would be considered a planet if it orbited the sun; pizza-faced, volcanic Io; the ridges of Saturn's Iapetus; or Neptune's moon, Triton, a nitrogen-frosted cantaloupe orbiting at 157 degrees to the orbital plane, which one day might go to pieces and grant its planet even grander rings than Saturn.
More exotic delights beckoned beyond the solar system, including Hoag's Object, a strange ring galaxy, and its thematic counterpart, the "Eye of Sauron" created by a luminous ring orbiting the star Fomalhaut. There was the pink planet, GJ 504b, or the blacker-than-pitch planet, TrES-2b, or the hellscapes of KIC 12557548 b, Kepler-36c or HD 189773b. In the end, space is too amazing and terrifying to be contained in one list, so I hope some of you reading this will view it as a jumping-off point for your own adventure. At risk of being called corny, I'll close with the following thought: The Ship of the Imagination is all fueled-up. What's on your itinerary?
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A new kind of survival story: Scientists discovered a star that came near a black hole and lived to tell the tale – at least temporarily.