Astronomers have shown that matter likely disappears after entering a black hole, refuting an alternate theory that matter is destroyed by colliding into a hard surface in space.
It's a big deal because humanity hardly understands what black holes really are. Hollywood has incorrectly envisioned them as "cosmic vacuums" or separate time-traveling dimensions, and they're still a mystery to the fleets of scientific labs studying them.
There are several theories on what happens to matter in space.
As it stands, two prominent theories describe what happens to stars in space. One is the "event horizon" theory, which argues that matter essentially gets sucked up into black holes and then vanishes. Event horizons are basically a boundary around a black hole that is literally inescapable. Their force of gravity is so strong that nothing — including light — can escape it.
The other is the "hard surface theory," which argues that matter is destroyed by smashing into a solid, unknown space object. The collision would cause stars shine to emit heat.
This study supports the "event horizon theory."
In this study, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University found evidence supporting the event horizon theory by process of elimination. Their models suggest that, if the "hard surface theory" were true, scientists would be able to see a "cosmic light show" for months or years at a time. But when they looked for evidence of these light shows happening in data collected by Hawaii's Pan-STARRS telescope, they couldn't any.
It doesn't exactly disprove the hard surface theory, but the lack of evidence supporting it does give extra weight to the event horizon theory. Perhaps black holes really do sit in the depths of our galaxy and eat stars.
"Our work implies that some, and perhaps all, black holes have event horizons and that material really does disappear from the observable Universe when pulled into these exotic objects, as we've expected for decades," Ramesh Narayan, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a release.
Even though many aspects of black holes remain elusive, humanity is now slightly closer to understanding them.