07Jan2019

Step Inside a Black Hole With Virtual Reality

Image Credit: Stefan Gillessen, Reinhard Genzel, Frank Eisenhauer CC BY 3.0 Unported, via Wikimedia Commons

Technology is taking us to the final frontier in a way most of us probably didn’t expect. For the things we can’t reach and can’t be captured on camera, we have to find new and creative ways to explore the deeper reaches of space.

For instance, there is no way we could travel the 25,640 light-years to see the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. Even if we could get there, we wouldn’t be able to survive the trip long enough to tell someone.

With virtual reality, or VR, we can experience events we shouldn’t be able to, including getting close to the singularity of a black hole. Any artist and computer programmer could create such a thing, though. The talent is making this realistic on a level we didn’t think was previously possible. With technology, we can observe a real black hole, or as real as we can understand it.

The Milky Way’s Black Hole

Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole in the heart of our galaxy, contains the closest singularity to Earth even though the distance is just way too far to travel. In a way, we definitely want plenty of room between ourselves and the black hole as possible, but the large gap makes research and understanding difficult. We don’t even have an image of what they really look like. For the first time we ever, we now have the best idea of a black hole’s visual characteristics — and they aren’t what we expected.

Instead of a dark spot among stars in the sky, the VR representation shows the black hole as a swirling, spherical tornado of light all getting sucked into the center. Scientists at The Netherlands’ Radboud University and Germany’s Goethe University took recent astrophysical models of Sagittarius A* and created enough images to make a 360-degree VR experience. The coding was based on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, creating the simulation and visuals the scientists we can see in the program.

The Simulation

The VR program of Sagittarius A* is available on current VR devices. There had been others before this one, such as the HP Mars Home Planet to give a tour of what Mars is like on the surface. Now, this simulation can offer the experience of a black hole up close and personal. The result of both simulations has been outreach to the general public to garner interest about space and astrophysics, especially in children. Marketing the simulation as an educational tool, this is a way to both teach people and get more recognition.

Heino Falcke, a professor of astrophysics at Radboud University, made a statement about the simulation. “We all have a picture in our head of how the black holes supposedly look, but science has progressed and we can now make much more accurate renderings — and these black holes look quite different from what we are used to. These visualizations are just the start, more to come in the future.”

The Future of Exploration

The technology to travel over twenty-five thousand light-years, much less one, is currently beyond our reach and is unlikely to happen in any of our lifetimes, if at all. There is so much about space we don’t understand, and humanity will probably never get the chance to experience at all. Regardless, technology has made leaps and bounds in recent decades, allowing us to experience and explore further than previously imagined. Now we can go beyond with VR and simulations. While a poor competitor to the real thing, we’re more than willing to take what we can get.

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Written By: Megan Ray Nichols – Associate Editor of Astro Space News
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