Virtual Reality: Start Monday Right by Standing on the Edge of a Black Hole

You're perched at the point of no return.

If you entered Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, some pretty nasty, reality-bending things would happen to you. Fortunately, you don’t have to risk life and limb to take a peek at what happens on the edge of this famous black hole because astronomers have created a VR simulation that provides a neat, scientifically accurate alternative.

There are a few different explanations for what might happen to a human who enters a black hole, but the takeaway from these theories is largely that we don’t have the technology to actually peer inside one to know for sure. As a workaround, Jordy Davelaar, an astrophysics Ph.D. student at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, worked with a team of six other scientists to create this simulation, made by stitching together astrophysical models of the black hole. They calculated how a viewer might move along the hole’s edge, and published a paper, explaining how and why they did this on Monday in Computational Astrophysics and Astronomy.

An image from this black hole VR simulation 

J. Havelaar/Radboud University 

“Our virtual reality simulation creates one of the most realistic views of the direct surroundings of the black hole and will help us to learn more about how black holes behave,” said Davelaar. “Traveling to a black hole in our lifetime is impossible, so immersive visualizations like this can help us understand more about these systems from where we are.”

Generally, a black hole’s mass is concentrated around a single point deep in its center. Around that point, gravity becomes so strong that not even light can move through it — a bit like a whirlpool in the ocean. The simulation takes the viewer to on the edge of that whirlpool, near a place called “the event horizon.”

Anything else that passes through that event horizon would likely be trapped there forever. In the simulation, you take the place of a bit of matter floating near that precarious point of no return.

This most recent simulation doesn’t take us into the depths of the black hole, but scientists have been playing around with that idea too. For example, Ziri Younsi, Ph.D., an astrophysicist at the Goethe University Frankfurt, created a video of what that might be like in 2016, though it has less artistic flair tha this current version.

In th most recent video (at the top of this article), we see the next step in this process of trying to understand what happens to space and time near these supermassive black holes in a fun and scientific way. The background music probably isn’t accurate, but even astrophysicists enjoy a good spooky soundtrack.

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