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Beyond the threshold: a new visualization of a black hole at NASA allows viewers to dive into the event horizon

A NASA astrophysicist has developed immersive simulations of a black hole using a supercomputer. These visuals illustrate two scenarios: a last-minute escape or crossing the event horizon and falling into the black hole

A black hole pulls matter into it, the possibilities are that the matter will be ejected back into space or fall into the event horizon. Illustration: depositphotos.com
A black hole pulls matter into it, the possibilities are that the matter will be ejected back into space or fall into the event horizon. Illustration: depositphotos.com

A NASA astrophysicist has developed immersive simulations of a black hole using a supercomputer. These visuals illustrate two scenarios: escaping at the last moment or crossing the event horizon and falling into the black hole. The project demonstrates the intense physical and visual distortions that occur near black holes, including light amplification and time dilation effects, and provides a vivid representation of these cosmic phenomena. Credit: SciTechDaily.com

The new simulations of black holes

NASA's black hole simulations simulate the dramatic effects of crossing the event horizon, highlighting the severe distortions in space-time and the final spectification near the singularity.

Have you ever wondered what happens when you fall into a black hole? Now, thanks to an immersive new visualization produced on a NASA supercomputer, viewers can dive into the event horizon, the point of no return of a black hole.

The science behind imaging

"People often ask about this, and simulating these hard-to-imagine processes helps me connect the mathematics of relativity to actual results in the real universe," said Jeremy Schnittman, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who created the simulations. . "So I simulated two different scenarios, one in which the daring observer misses the horizon of events and is thrown back out, and one in which the observer crosses the border and his fate is sealed."

The visual items are available in multiple forms. Explanatory videos serve as tour guides, illuminating the bizarre effects of Einstein's theory of general relativity. Versions rendered as 360-degree videos allow viewers to look around during the ride, while others consist of flat sky maps.

In this simulation of a flight towards a supermassive black hole, many of the fascinating features created by the effects of general relativity along the way are highlighted. The simulation, produced on a NASA supercomputer, follows a camera as it approaches, briefly orbits, and then crosses the event horizon—the point of no return—of a monstrous black hole similar to the one at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Jay Schnittman and B. Powell.

Watch the skydive in a 360 video on YouTube

Technical details of the project

To create the simulations, Schnittman teamed up with Goddard scientist Brian Powell and used the Discovery supercomputer at NASA's Climate Simulation Center. The project yielded about 10 terabytes of data - equivalent to about half of the estimated text content in the Library of Congress - and lasted about 5 days on only 0.3% of Discover's 129,000 processors. The same feat would take more than a decade on a typical laptop.

Properties of the simulated black hole

The goal was to create a simulation of a supermassive black hole with a mass 4.3 million times greater than the mass of our Sun, equivalent to the monster located at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

"If you have a choice, you want to fall into a supermassive black hole," Schnittman explained. "Black holes with a stellar mass, containing up to 30 solar masses, have a much smaller event horizon and stronger tidal forces, which can tear apart approaching objects before they reach the horizon."

This happens because the gravitational force at the end of an object closer to the black hole is much stronger than at the other end. Falling objects are stretched like noodles, a process astrophysicists call spaghettification.

Visual and physical effects near a black hole

The event horizon of the black hole in the simulation spans about 16 million miles (25 million kilometers), or about 17% of the distance between Earth and the Sun. A flat, swirling cloud of hot, glowing gas called an accretion disk surrounds it and serves as a visual reference point during the fall. So are luminous structures called photon rings, which form closer to the black hole from light that has circled it one or more times. A backdrop of the starry sky as seen from Earth completes the scene.

Tour an alternate visualization that follows a camera as it approaches, falls toward, briefly orbits, and escapes a supermassive black hole. This immersive 360-degree version allows viewers to look around during the flight. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Jay Schnittman and B. Powell

Watch the visualization explanation on YouTube

As the camera approaches the black hole, reaching speeds closer and closer to that of light itself, the glow of the accretion disk and background stars intensifies similar to the sound of an approaching race car. Their light appears brighter and whiter when looking in the direction of travel.

The journey to the event horizon

The simulations begin with the camera positioned nearly 400 million miles (640 million kilometers) away, with the black hole rapidly filling the landscape. Along the way, the black hole's disk, photon rings, and night sky become increasingly warped—and even create multiple images as their light traverses the increasingly warped space-time.

In real time, it takes the camera about 3 hours to fall into the event horizon, and it makes almost two complete 30-minute laps along the way. But to anyone watching from afar, it will never quite get there. As space-time became more warped and closer to the horizon, the camera image would slow down and then seem to freeze in place. This is why astronomers originally referred to black holes as "frozen stars".

Fate within the horizon of events

At the event horizon, even space-time itself flows in at the speed of light, the maximum possible cosmic speed. Once they are inside it, both the camera and the space-time in which it moves race towards the center of the black hole - a one-dimensional point called a singularity, where the laws of physics as we know them cease to apply.

"Once the camera crosses the horizon, its destruction by spectification is only 12.8 seconds away," Schnittman said. From there, it's only 79,500 miles (128,000 kilometers) to the singularity. The last part of the journey ends in the blink of an eye.

Theoretical implications of time dilation

In the alternative scenario, the camera pans close to the event horizon but never crosses and runs to safety. If an astronaut were to fly a spacecraft on a 6 hour round trip while her colleagues on the mother ship were away from the black hole, she would return 36 minutes younger than her colleagues. This is because time passes more slowly near a strong gravitational source and when it is moving close to the speed of light.

"This situation can be even more extreme," noted Schnittman. "If the black hole was spinning rapidly, like the one shown in the 2014 movie 'Interstellar', it would return many years younger than its shipmates."

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