What Would Happen If a Black Hole Showed Up in Our Solar System? Hollywood and an Expert Answer

A stock image of a black hole. Image: PD
A stock image of a black hole. Image: PD

The scenario seems impossible. A black hole randomly passing into our solar system. If it happened, it would obviously be bad, which is why it’s the perfect subject for a big Hollywood disaster film. But will Hollywood’s representation match the reality? An astrophysics researcher told us, for the most part, yes.

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First the news. Brad Peyton, the director of San Andreas, just sold the rights to a film called Black Hole. STX will make the film, which is about what happens when a black hole enters our solar system. “Cities are assaulted by gigantic meteorites, continents are devastated by super-volcanos and Earth’s shifting axis triggers a cataclysmic second Ice Age. All the while, a team of scientists, soldiers and astronauts must work together to save the planet from imminent global annihilation,” says the description on Deadline. (Obviously this film is not at all related to the 1979 Disney film, The Black Hole.)

To see how accurate that description is, we emailed Nick Stone, an astrophysics researcher at Columbia University. “I would say that two out of three of the disasters in [that] quote are actually quite plausible, provided we accept the premise of a stray black hole passing through our solar system,” he said.

Stone explained there are a bunch of variables that would change the actual effects on Earth, such as size of the black hole and distance from the solar system. A “supermassive” black hole is so big it would just kill everything, so odds are the film will show a “stellar mass” one.

Now, if the black hole passed at a very big distance, Stone suggested it would project some asteroids and stuff toward Earth, but it could take centuries. A little closer and it would disrupt our asteroid belt with impacts within a year. That’s the good news. The medium distance would also change the ellipticity of Earth’s orbit, creating “a new cycle of seasons.”

“During Earth’s closest approach to the Sun, temperatures would increase immensely, much more than in a traditional summer, while during its farthest distance, temperatures would plummet far below what we now experience in winter,” Stone explained. “It is hard to say what the long-term effect on climate would be, but depending on the ellipticity of Earth’s orbit it could become unsuitable for life.”

Then there’s the worst case scenario: if the black hole was actually very close to our planet. “If the black hole passes extremely close to the Earth, its tidal forces could crack the Earth’s crust, creating the supervolcanoes mentioned in the press release. However, if the black hole comes that close, it is quite likely Earth would be ejected from the solar system, causing even bigger problems as the planet freezes,” Stone said.

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Maybe we know how the movie is going to end.

Peyton will direct Black Hole from a script he co-wrote with Philip Gawthorne. However, when exactly the film would happen is up in the air. The director is about to make Rampage with Dwayne Johnson, is developing Journey 3 with Dwayne Johnson, and is working on a San Andreas sequel with, you guessed it, Dwayne Johnson.

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This maybe one of the people who’ll save the Earth in Black Hole would be played by Dwayne Johnson? Seems like a possibility.

“I hope [Black Hole] will be a wholly original franchise-starter that is just the beginning of a much bigger story,” Peyton said.

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Does that mean, like, more than one black hole is going to appear? Can you actually defeat a black hole? Not even an expert can answer that one.

[Deadline]

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo. Formerly of Premiere, EW, Us Weekly, and Slashfilm. AP Award-Winning Film Critic and CCA member. Loves Star Wars, posters, Legos, and often all three at once.

DISCUSSION

Same thing that would happen with any stellar/jovian mass object. It all depends on how close and what trajectory.

Within a couple light years, the gravity will disrupt the oort cloud and fling a few oort objects in random directions. This is similar to the nemesis hypothesis that was put out for there being a large planet/brown dwarf star in the outer reaches of our solar system that disrupted the oort cloud every so often. Offered as an explaination of why there’s a chance every 100 million years or so for the planet to get smacked by a large object.

If it goes through the outer solar system, its going to disrupt the jovians and their moons. *shrug* Not much effect on us, it might make the earth’s orbit a bit more eccentric.

Now if this sucker is a black hole... well... as it passes through any part of the heliosphere it will start consuming matter. Everything it eats along the way will be crushed and generate x-rays along the inner edge of the accretion disk that will form. These x-rays are ejected along the poles.

Depending on how much the hole eats, and its polar direction... If the earth’s orbit passes through the x-ray/gamma laser that it generates... it will sterilize any part of the planet facing it. Oh, and it can do this from as far as 10-20 light years out for a stellar sized black hole.

Same thing for pulsars if they get to within 10 light years.

Lets put it this way, if any of these objects make it into the inner solar system, we’re toast.

The only way anything survives is if we launch ships at least 5 years before it gets here.

We don’t talk about this scenario because its a game-over one for us right now. Even if we saw such an object 100 years out, the current political and social will for coming up with a long term solution and getting people off the rock is not going to happen. Its a sad thing to say. People would rather die later than spend the effort to save themselves now. As long as they are at the end of their lives or dead when the consequences come knocking for them... they do not care. Even if their children are the ones who will be forced to face those consequences.

Maybe in 50 years, when we have been forced to colonize space to import resources. But before that? We’re fucked. Just look at 45. People put that into place to drag us back from the future kicking and screaming. Because they want things to change back to the way they were. To remain ignorant - rolled up in promises of comfort and of happiness from their memories - to have a God that is All Mighty and to not have to worry beyond picking up a simple tool and doing a simple job for simple pay.

That is not a society that can save itself from itself... let alone rescue itself from a natural disaster of that scale.

I dare anyone to challenge me on that - because the few that would be willing to put in the effort would be overwhelmed by the number of people who would say: “I’ll be dead by then, therefore it is not my problem.” And the way people think right now - they will kill you to prevent you from working on such a solution because if you succeed and they don’t then you were right and they were wrong. And their mindset cannot abide that idea.