When looking at the planetoids, asteroids, comets, and other things out past Neptune, scientists are a little baffled. Gravity pulls smaller things toward bigger things — or put more correctly, it moves things with a smaller mass toward things of larger mass. Even if you can’t directly see something massive, you can tell it’s there by watching the way other things move nearby.
The math of all this keeps pointing toward another planet out there (assuming you don’t count Pluto as one), but we’ve yet to see whatever is out there directly. Whatever it is, it’s got the mass of somewhere between 5 and 15 Earths, so it should have been found by now, right?
It Might Be a Black Hole
One possible explanation is that there really might be a tiny black hole out there. While the theory is far from proven, it does fit the facts. There’s something massive enough to move everything around out there, but small or dark enough to avoid being seen. Scientists estimate that a black hole of that size would be somewhere between the size of a fist and the size of a basketball, and would be nearly impossible to see from Earth.
Black holes typically form when stars collapse, and end up being much more massive than just (just?) 5-15 Earths, and couldn’t form to be that small if they started out as something as large as our sun. To get a tiny black hole, it would have had to form during the early universe from pockets of dense matter, and then manage to survive long enough to still be around. If there were a black hole the right size to push things around past Neptune like they are now, scientists estimate it could last far longer than the universe.
If it is a black hole, what can we do with it?
The really cool thing about black holes is that they’re really good at converting matter to energy — ridiculously good at it.
To recap: the best way to convert matter to energy is to put it in contact with antimatter (like they do on Star Trek), which would give you 100% of the possible energy. Keeping antimatter stored for useful energy production is still far beyond our capabilities, so that’s not going to be possible for now. Even if we found a way, antimatter containment would probably take a lot of energy, largely negating the advantages (sorry, Captain).
The next best thing is to use a black hole, which could theoretically turn 42% of the matter into energy. 42% may sound small if you’re looking at your cell phone battery, or trying to take a Nissan LEAF on a road trip, but compared to other ways matter can turn into energy, it’s HUGE. For example, fire is about 0.000000001% effective at turning mass into energy. Nuclear reactors are better, at 0.08%, but that’s still nothing compared to what a black hole could do.
Actually using a black hole for something other than mass destruction may sound farfetched, but in 2016, Stephen Hawking figured that a black hole with the mass of a mountain could provide for all of humanity’s energy needs. Considering that a black hole of 5 Earth masses is around the size of an orange, one as massive as a mountain would be minuscule.
The problem, though, is that we don’t know how to capture and keep a black hole. Were a tiny one to appear in a laboratory somewhere and stick around, it would quickly sink to the center of our planet and stay there, eating and eating forever, but not in such a way that we could get any energy from it. Another physicist figured that it would take us at least 10,000 years to figure this out, but nobody really knows at this point.
If we can figure all this out, we actually might be able to do more than just provide for our energy needs. Another recent article at MSN tells us about the continuing quest to reduce the energy needs for faster-than-light travel with something like Star Trek’s warp drive. So, using a black hole would be a great energy source for that — but it would be a lot more like the Romulans than Starfleet.
Either way, if there is a black hole somewhere in our solar system, it could eventually prove very useful for our species.
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