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Looking into a Black Hole: VR Opens New Possibilities

A new study published in Computational Astrophysics and Cosmology has found a way to answer a question that has engulfed astronomers and space aficionados for years: what’s it like to look into a supermassive black hole? The scientists utilized virtual reality (VR) to explore the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, for the first time ever. Because it is more than 25,000 light years away, and because of the extreme gravitational forces, VR is as close as humans can possibly get to a black hole.

For Saggitarius A, the black hole in in the center of the Milky Way, the researchers calculated images based on recent best-fit models to generate a complete 360 virtual reality movie of the surrounding environment of the black hole and its event horizon. The simulation can be viewed on any VR device.

“VR represents a new medium for scientific visualisation which can be used, as demonstrated in this work, to investigate the emission that an observer would measure from inside the accretion flow,” says the study. In other words, the study demonstrates what an observer would see if they were in the immediate vicinity of a black hole. “In this work, we have sought to address this question directly, by using state-of-the-art numerical techniques and astrophysical models in a physically-self-consistent manner”.

In addition to the innovative technology applications in their particular study, the authors believe that the implications are wide: “These methods can be applied to accreting black holes of any size, so long as radiation feedback onto the accretion flow has a negligible impact on the flow’s magnetohydrodynamical properties”.

According to the authors of the study, the use of VR in astronomy has far-reaching implications: “In addition to scientific applications, the 360∘ Virtual Reality movies we present also represent a new medium through which to interactively communicate black hole physics to a wider audience, serving as a powerful educational tool”.