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NASA Realizes Immersive Visualization of a Black Hole’s Event Horizon

NASA Realizes Immersive Visualization of a Black Hole's Event Horizon

Have you ever thought about what happens if you were to fall into a black hole? Thanks to a new immersive visualization created on a NASA supercomputer, you can now experience plunging into the event horizon, the point of no return for a black hole. Astrophysicist Jeremy Schnittman from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who developed the visualizations, stated that simulating these complex processes helps bridge the gap between the mathematics of relativity and real-world consequences in the universe. He simulated two scenarios – one where a camera (representing a daring astronaut) narrowly misses the event horizon and slingshots back out, and another where it crosses the boundary, sealing its fate.

The visualizations come in various forms. Explainer videos serve as guides, shedding light on the strange effects of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. 360-degree videos allow viewers to look all around during the journey, while others are presented as flat all-sky maps.

Schnittman collaborated with fellow scientist Brian Powell from Goddard and utilized the Discover supercomputer at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation to create the visualizations. The project produced around 10 terabytes of data, which is equivalent to about half of the text content in the Library of Congress, and ran for about 5 days using only 0.3% of Discover’s 129,000 processors. The same task would take over a decade on a regular laptop.

The destination in the visualization is a supermassive black hole with a mass 4.3 million times that of our Sun, similar to the one at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Schnittman pointed out that if given the choice, falling into a supermassive black hole would be preferable. Stellar-mass black holes, which have up to about 30 solar masses, have smaller event horizons and stronger tidal forces that can tear apart approaching objects before they reach the horizon.

The phenomenon is a result of the significant difference in gravitational pull between the end of an object closer to the black hole and the other end. Objects falling towards the black hole undergo a process known as spaghettification, where they are stretched out like noodles.

In this scenario, a simulated black hole has an event horizon that extends approximately 16 million miles (25 million kilometers), which is equivalent to about 17% of the distance from Earth to the Sun. Surrounding the black hole is a flat, swirling cloud of hot, glowing gas called an accretion disk, which provides a visual point of reference during the descent. Additionally, structures known as photon rings, formed closer to the black hole from light that has orbited it one or more times, are also visible. The backdrop of the starry sky as observed from Earth further enhances the overall scene.