Could life survive on an Earth-like planet orbiting a black hole?

Jeremy Schnittman, a research astrophysicist at NASA, tries to answer this question.

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Mark Serrels
2 min read

What would happen if Earth's sun suddenly stopped being a sun and transformed into a black hole? According to Jeremy Schnittman, a research astrophysicist at NASA , all oceans would freeze within days, so we'd most likely have a rough time.

But does that mean a planet orbiting a black hole is completely unsustainable when it comes to life? The answer to that question is a little more complex. So complex, in fact, that Schnittman decided to write an entire paper on the topic.

Inspired by Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan directed sci-fi flick where NASA sends a space crew on a secret mission to find a habitable planet outside our solar system, Schnittman wanted to explore the idea of a planet orbiting a black hole. In Interstellar, scientists discover three potential planets worth traveling to, all of which orbit a supermassive black hole. Interstellar is a fictional movie but was notably rigorous with its science. An accompanying book written by famed theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, The Science of Interstellar, was extremely detailed and actually provided Scnittman with a solid point of reference as he attempted to answer the question: could a habitable planet orbit a black hole?

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So what's the answer? Any potential habitable planet would have to get light and energy from somewhere, providing that planet with a livable temperature. Given the way black holes absorb gas and matter, some black holes have accretion disks. According to the paper "[a]ccreting stellar-mass black holes are the brightest X-ray sources in the sky, and accreting supermassive black holes are the most luminous persistent sources in the universe." 

Does that mean a specific type of black hole could provide energy for life much like the sun? Kinda. But there's a problem: this type of energy and light would create a type of "all-pervasive blackbody radiation background would probably not be very conducive to complex life."

Oh dear. 

But the paper goes into even further detail. Would a sort of reflective, reverse Dyson sphere solve the problem of radiation? Potentially, but then we would have "neutrinos" to content with, which the paper calls "nature's silent killer".

So yeah, Interstellar. Great movie, but maybe moving to a planet that close to supermassive black hole isn't the best idea. Oh, and someone tell the creators of Fortnite their video game doesn't make sense.