Plunge into a black hole in this new video

See what it’s like to plunge into a black hole in this new NASA video.

Plunge into a black hole in new video

Have you ever wondered what happens when you fall into a black hole? On May 6, 2024, a NASA supercomputer produced a new, immersive visualization that lets viewers plunge into the event horizon. That’s a black hole’s point of no return.

Jeremy Schnittman is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and created the visualizations. Schnittman said:

People often ask about this, and simulating these difficult-to-imagine processes helps me connect the mathematics of relativity to actual consequences in the real universe. So I simulated two different scenarios, one where a camera – a stand-in for a daring astronaut – just misses the event horizon and slingshots back out, and one where it crosses the boundary, sealing its fate.

To create the visualizations, Schnittman teamed up with fellow Goddard scientist Brian Powell and used the Discover supercomputer at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation. The project generated about 10 terabytes of data. As an illustration, that’s equivalent to roughly half of the estimated text content in the Library of Congress. And the simulation took about five days running on just 0.3% of Discover’s 129,000 processors. In fact, the same feat would take more than a decade on a typical laptop.

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A simulated black hole

The destination is a supermassive black hole with 4.3 million times the mass of our sun. That size is equivalent to the monster located at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Schnittman explained:

If you have the choice, you want to fall into a supermassive black hole. Stellar-mass black holes, which contain up to about 30 solar masses, possess much smaller event horizons and stronger tidal forces, which can rip apart approaching objects before they get to the horizon.

This occurs because the gravitational pull on the end of an object nearer the black hole is much stronger than that on the other end. Infalling objects stretch out like noodles, a process astrophysicists call spaghettification.

The simulated black hole’s event horizon spans about 16 million miles (26 million km). That’s about 17% of the distance from Earth to the sun. A flat, swirling cloud of hot, glowing gas called an accretion disk surrounds the black hole. The accretion disk serves as a visual reference during the fall. So do glowing structures called photon rings. They form closer to the black hole from light that has orbited it one or more times. A backdrop of the starry sky as seen from Earth completes the scene.

The plunge

As the camera approaches the black hole, it reaches speeds ever closer to that of light itself. You can see the glow from the accretion disk and background stars become amplified. The increase in brightness occurs in much the same way as the sound of an oncoming racecar rises in pitch. The light appears brighter and whiter when looking into the direction of travel.

The movies begin with the camera located nearly 400 million miles (640 million km) away. Then, the black hole quickly begins filling the view. Along the way, the black hole’s disk, photon rings and the night sky become increasingly distorted. They even form multiple images as their light traverses the increasingly warped space-time.

In real time, the camera takes about three hours to fall to the event horizon, executing almost two complete 30-minute orbits along the way. But to anyone observing from afar, it would never quite get there. As space-time became ever more distorted closer to the horizon, the image of the camera would slow and then seem to freeze just shy of it. This is why astronomers originally referred to black holes as frozen stars.

At the event horizon, even space-time itself flows inward at the speed of light, the cosmic speed limit. Once inside it, both the camera and the space-time in which it’s moving rush toward the black hole’s center. That center is a one-dimensional point called a singularity, where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate. Schnittman said:

Once the camera crosses the horizon, its destruction by spaghettification is just 12.8 seconds away.

From there, it’s only 79,500 miles (128,000 km) to the singularity. This final leg of the voyage is over in the blink of an eye.

Orbiting without getting sucked in

In the alternative scenario (below), the camera orbits close to the event horizon but it never crosses over and escapes to safety. Imagine if an astronaut flew a spacecraft on this 6-hour round trip while her colleagues on a mothership remained far from the black hole. She’d return 36 minutes younger than the colleagues. That’s because time passes more slowly near a strong gravitational source and when moving near the speed of light.

Schnittman noted:

This situation can be even more extreme. If the black hole were rapidly rotating, like the one shown in the 2014 movie Interstellar, she would return many years younger than her shipmates.

Bottom line: Plunge into a black hole in this new video from NASA. See what it would look like to cross the event horizon of a supermassive black hole.


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