Starry, Starry Nights

The first image of a black hole by the Event Horizon Telescope. - From Wikipedia
The first image of a black hole by the Event Horizon Telescope. - From Wikipedia

The news this week has been dominated by the announcement of the release of the first Event Horizon photographs of a ‘Black hole’, that mysterious outer space phenomenon first posited by Stephen Hawking based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s a blurry sort of picture, but then again considering it’s a photograph of a light-eating singularity some 500 billion-billion kilometres away, a little focus issue shouldn’t be too surprising. For anybody who might have been living under a rock, a black hole is formed by a collapsed giant sun; one that has run out of energy and then gravity takes over, collapsing it in on itself. Not every dying star ends up as black hole – fortunately. Smaller suns end up as neutron stars which are pretty spectacular in their own right.  Consider our sun’s future – it's 1 393 684 km diameter (12 000 times the surface area of the earth) squashed down into a space about the size of Devil’s Peak. It’ll take the closer planets along with it, just for good measure. There are about 100 million of these unseen dots of pure weight scudding around our galaxy, so if you decide to take a stroll through space keep your headlights on. A teaspoon of neutron star material would weigh more than all of Table Mountain. Try putting a couple of those into your tea.

But a neutron star is still nothing compared to a Black Hole, the éminence grise of the universe. Where neutron stars stop collapsing when they reach the density of an atomic nucleus, black holes just keep on going until there is – well, nothing. Density becomes infinite, and just gravity remains. And boy, oh boy, this is gravity at its best: so powerful that light doesn’t even escape its hold, and hence their rather dull name. But this black hole has an insatiable appetite, and woe betide any light beam, planet, star, spaceship or spaceman that wanders over the edge of its reach – the ‘event horizon’ the research team took its name from. For them, time stops, and they become part of the hole, every bit of their mass increasing the power of the gravitational pull. We have a black hole at the centre of our Milky Way, too. Just thought I’d mention that in case you decide to wander too far from home when you take that stroll one night. It’s gobbling its way through the galaxy, swallowing suns in a whirlpool of gravity, but no need to panic. By the time the whirlpool reaches us on the outskirts of the Milky Way, we’ll all long be part of the neutron star formed when our sun implodes in about 5 billion years’ time.

“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams; Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

What does this have to do with Waterfront Charters, you may be wondering. Good question. See it as part of our quest to tell the stories of our planet. A Waterfront Charters cruise is surrounded by wonder. We have spoken about the incredible life that lives in our ocean (and the marine biologists who you can take along to fascinate you with facts and underwater pictures); we have spoken about the sun and the part it plays in keeping our planet alive. And at night, once the sun has set over the Atlantic Ocean and the stars come out to twinkle above our luxurious boats – well, here’s a universe of absolute magic. 400 billion stars in our galaxy; countless billions of galaxies beyond that. Unseen neutron stars and black holes; winking pulsars and quasars. Clouds of gas that extend millions of light years in extent, forming new stars constantly (good old gravity again); meteors and comets closer to home.

Lie back on the deck of a luxury catamaran as you drift back to harbour after a relaxing champagne sunset cruise and ponder this phenomenon; we may have taken you on a thirty nautical mile adventure, above you is infinity. Here’s another thought: at the speed of the fastest spacecraft ever launched, it’ll take you eighty thousand years just to get to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Better pack extra sandwiches for the trip. And don’t even contemplate going any further. Even at the Starship Enterprise’s Warp Five (assumably five times the speed of light, or around 1 500 000 km per second), it’ll take you 40 000 years to reach the other side of our galaxy, and two million years to reach the nearest galaxy. Space is mind-bogglingly big, as Douglas Adams pointed out.

Or just take advantage of what is available here in Cape Town: an offering of amazing cruise options. The stars are what we reach for; our planet is what we can enjoy, and at Waterfront Charters we take that enjoyment to new levels!

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