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Event horizon

In general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary in spacetime beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. In layman's terms, it is defined as "the point of no return", i.e., the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape impossible. An event horizon is most commonly associated with black holes. Light emitted from beyond the event horizon can never reach the outside observer. Likewise, any object approaching the horizon from the observer's side appears to slow down and never quite pass through the horizon, with its image becoming more and more redshifted as time elapses. The traveling object, however, experiences no strange effects and does, in fact, pass through the horizon in a finite amount of proper time.

More specific types of horizon include the related but distinct absolute and apparent horizons found around a black hole. Still other distinct notions include the Cauchy and Killing horizon; the photon spheres and ergospheres of the Kerr solution; particle and cosmological horizons relevant to cosmology; and isolated and dynamical horizons important in current black hole research.

Event horizon of a black hole

One of the best-known examples of an event horizon derives from general relativity's description of a black hole, a celestial object so massive that no nearby matter or radiation can escape its gravitational field. Often, this is described as the boundary within which the black hole's escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. However, a more accurate description is that within this horizon, all lightlike paths (paths that light could take) and hence all paths in the forward light cones of particles within the horizon, are warped so as to fall farther into the hole. Once a particle is inside the horizon, moving into the hole is as inevitable as moving forward in time, and can actually be thought of as equivalent to doing so, depending on the spacetime coordinate system used.

The surface at the Schwarzschild radius acts as an event horizon in a non-rotating body that fits inside this radius (although a rotating black hole operates slightly differently). The Schwarzschild radius of an object is proportional to its mass. Theoretically, any amount of matter will become a black hole if compressed into a space that fits within its corresponding Schwarzschild radius. For the mass of the Sun this radius is approximately 3 kilometers and for the Earth it is about 9 millimeters. In practice, however, neither the Earth nor the Sun has the necessary mass and therefore the necessary gravitational force, to overcome electron and neutron degeneracy pressure. The minimal mass required for a star to be able to collapse beyond these pressures is the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit, which is approximately three solar masses.

Black hole event horizons are widely misunderstood. Common, although erroneous, is the notion that black holes “vacuum up” material in their neighborhood, where in fact they are no more capable of “seeking out” material to consume than any other gravitational attractor. As with any mass in the universe, matter must come within its gravitational scope for the possibility to exist of capture or consolidation with any other mass. Equally common is the idea that matter can be observed “falling into” a black hole. This is not possible. Astronomers can only detect accretion disks around black holes, where material moves with such speed that friction creates high-energy radiation which can be detected. (Similarly, some matter from these accretion disks is forced out along the axes of spin of the black hole, creating visible jets when these streams interact with matter such as interstellar gas or when they happen to be aimed directly at earth.) Further, relativity dictates that anything approaching an event horizon will, from the point of view of an observer, never actually cross the horizon, but will approach ever more slowly, gaining mass as it does so and, correspondingly, any light it emits will be further and further redshifted.