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NASA’s New Black Hole Visualization Transports Viewers Beyond the Edge

A detailed visualization of a black hole by NASA, showcasing swirling accretion disks and intense gravitational effects, offering a glimpse into the phenomena occurring beyond the event horizon.

Have you ever been curious about what occurs if you were to tumble into a black hole? A recent immersive visualization created using a supercomputer from NASA now allows individuals to experience what it’s like to dive into the event horizon, the point beyond which there is no return, of a black hole.

A Journey Into the Unknown

People frequently inquire about what it would be like to experience the unimaginable concept of falling into a black hole. Jeremy Schnittman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has developed simulations to translate the complex math of relativity into visual experiences that reflect real cosmic phenomena. He’s crafted two scenarios: one where a proxy, symbolized by a camera for a courageous spaceman, grazes past the black hole’s event horizon and catapults away, and another where it ventures beyond this point of no return.

These scientific illustrations come in assorted formats. Some are narrated explainer videos that serve as tours, showcasing the strange and wondrous effects predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Other versions are immersive 360-degree videos allowing a full view of the surroundings, and some are panoramic all-sky maps.

Creating these visual tours required a collaboration between Schnittman and Brian Powell, another Goddard scientist. Using NASA’s Discover supercomputer, the team was able to simulate what 10 terabytes of data could show—this is an amount of information on par with the written works housed in the Library of Congress. The process took five days, utilizing a fraction of the supercomputer’s capacity, whereas a regular laptop would have needed more than ten years to accomplish the task.

The subject of the simulation is a colossal black hole, akin to the one at the heart of the Milky Way, with a mass 4.3 million times that of the Sun. Schnittman recommends that if you were to hypothetically choose a black hole to fall into, opt for one of the supermassive variety. Smaller black holes, like those with around 30 solar masses, can tear objects apart due to intense tidal forces before they even reach the event horizon. This destructive process, known as spaghettification, happens because the gravitational pull varies greatly from one end of an object to the other as it approaches the black hole, causing it to stretch out.

In the simulation, the black hole’s event horizon stretches nearly 16 million miles wide — a fraction of the distance from Earth to the Sun. It’s surrounded by an accretion disk, a blazing ring of gas that stands out during the descent. Photon rings — light that has orbited the black hole once or more — and the familiar canvas of the night sky provide additional points of reference in the visualization.

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