Only “seen” when swallowing up an unfortunate gas cloud or wayward star, black holes remain an enigma. With one of these bodies at the center of most galaxies—including our own—many scientists spend their whole careers trying to understand what happens to objects that become entrapped in their startling gravitational pull. Once in its grasp, an object can only escape if it manages to travel faster than the speed of light, a feat considered nearly impossible. Without any actual experimentation possible, researchers can only speculate as to what would happen if an astronaut ever went inside a black hole. Here are some of the leading theories:
1. Nothing Dramatic
While one might assume that being sucked inside a black hole would prove to be an extraordinary experience, Einstein’s theory of general relativity may suggest the opposite. According to that theory, if an astronaut was pulled into a large enough black hole, they would simply drift past its event horizon (the edge of a black hole, from which nothing can escape, not even light) without any drama. This “no drama” zone would prevent our astronaut from ever realizing that they had fallen into a black hole—that is, up until they are eventually crushed within its ultra dense center (known as a singularity).
On the other end of the spectrum, the “firewall paradox” holds the possibility of a much more grisly fate. In this case, as our unlucky astronaut crosses the black hole’s event horizon, they are met with a maelstrom of super heated particles that will incinerate them almost instantaneously. While the theory is completely plausible, it is often a controversial one, as it contradicts Einstein’s “no drama” theory.
The process of spaghettification is widely regarded by scientists and acknowledged in most black hole theories. As our space explorer falls feet first into a small black hole, the overwhelming gravitational pull increases on the lower end of their body. Much like the name suggests, this causes the body to be compressed, stretched, and pulled in an almost cartoon-like fashion. The farther beyond the event horizon our traveler floats, the longer and skinnier they become. “As you fall closer and closer beyond this point, you are pulled into a long, thin chain of atoms that no longer resemble the original being,” notes Amber Boyer, a professor of physics and astronomy at Kutztown University. “You’re essentially being stretched longer and thinner like a strand of pasta.”