Black Hole ‘Lightning’ Seems to Defy Laws of Physics

December 2, 2014 Updated: December 3, 2014

Researchers published a paper in Science last month about a perplexing gamma ray burst that seemed to move across a supermassive black hole’s event horizon faster than the speed of light. An event horizon is a boundary around a black hole past which nothing is visible. 

According to Albert Einstein, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

But, between Nov. 12 and Nov. 13, 2012, scientists at the Observatory of Roque de los Muchachos on the Canary Island La Palma observed gamma rays that seemed to move faster. According to the size of the black hole’s event horizon, it should have taken the rays 20 minutes or more to get across it, yet it took less than 5 minutes.


One of the lead researchers, Julian Sitarek at the Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE) in Barcelona, Spain, said in a press release: “Special relativity tells us that no object can suddenly light up its whole surface faster than it takes the light to cross it. As the region surrounding the black hole of IC 310 is a few times larger than our solar system, nothing was supposed to change in a shorter time than about 20 minutes.”

The scientists came up with another theory, however. Rather than the rays moving faster than the speed of light across the black hole’s event horizon, they hypothesize that multiple streams emitted from different parts of it, creating the illusion of the rays moving across it. They say the rapid spinning of the black hole caused it to form magnetic poles; the poles created intense electrical fields at either end, which accelerated particles, flinging them out in bursts close to the speed of light—but not faster than the speed of light.

When these accelerated particles burst forth, they ran into photons (light particles) and transferred some of their energy to the photons, transforming them into gamma-rays.

“It is similar to what happens in electric storms,” said Oscar Blanch of IFAE and co-spokesman for the Observatory of Roque de los Muchachos, where astronomers used the Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescope to observe the phenomenon.

The black hole is some 260 million light years from Earth, so the massive “storm” the astronomers observed actually happened a long, long time ago.

Though scientists can observe some phenomena surrounding black holes, much about black holes remains a mystery.

MORE: What Exactly Are Black Holes and What Happens Inside Them?

Even the formation of lightning on Earth isn’t as clear-cut as you may think. Dr. Martin Uman, director of the International Center for Lightning Testing and Research at Camp Blanding in Florida, searched for the origin of terrestrial lightning and discovered that storm clouds don’t produce the energy levels needed to generate a bolt of lightning.

Read more about Dr. Uman’s findings here: Did a Giant Cosmic Lightning Bolt Hit Mars? Could One Hit Earth?

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Update: A previous version of this article stated that the gamma rays seemed to move across the black hole. The article has been corrected to state that the gamma rays seemed to move across the black hole’s event horizon.