At the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy, more than 25,000 light-years from Earth, a supermassive black hole with the mass of 4 million suns is lurking.
No one has ever seen this monster, called Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-star), or any of the countless other black holes in the universe; like all black holes — regions of space that produce gravity so intense that not even light can escape — it's invisible to us.
But European astronomers say their new virtual reality simulation of Sagittarius A* gives us a good idea of what a black hole's immediate environment looks like.
The simulation, described Nov. 19 in the journal Computational Astrophysics and Cosmology, shows glowing matter swirling around a dark spot representing Sagittarius A*.
"The matter looks like a whirlpool in a sink where the black hole acts like a drain," Jordy Davelaar, an astronomer at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and one of the simulation's creators, told NBC News MACH in an email. "The matter rotates around it, and the closer it comes to the black hole, the faster it goes."
The brief video animation is based on Einstein's theory of relativity and mathematical models of black holes. Davelaar and his collaborators at Radboud and Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, call it the most realistic black hole animation ever created — more realistic even than the depiction of "Gargantua," the fictional black hole featured in the 2014 movie "Interstellar."
That's a bold claim, as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne famously served as Interstellar's scientific advisor. But as another scientist behind the new simulation, Radboud astronomer Heino Falcke, said of "Interstellar" in an email, "They had the light bending calculated correctly, but they had the gas dynamics wrong. They placed something like Saturn's rings around a black hole, which is not what we think happens there. Rather, you have a cauldron of hot gas swirling around."
Of course, you don't have to know gas dynamics or relativity to enjoy the video, which can be viewed with or without VR gear. And while the simulation aims to help scientists better understand the flow of matter into and around a black hole, it's also intended to draw in nonscientists — to "open up a window to broadcast these topics to a wider audience," as Davelaar put it.
Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, said the simulation meets those twin goals. "It's spectacular," she said in an email. "I personally believe that 'mapping is knowing,' so if we can visualize the flows around a black hole, we not only encode what we know...but are able to share what we know with the curious public in a visceral, intuitive way."
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