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Forget a journey to the center of the Earth — how about the center of the Milky Way?
NASA’s new immersive ultra-HD experience lets you see our galaxy as if you were the supermassive black hole that lurks at its core. With the power of the space agency’s Ames supercomputer simulations, and data from its Chandra X-Ray Observatory, you have control over what you want to zero in on — from globs of hot gas to otherworldly X-ray flashes.
Now that you have the POV of the black hole known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), you’re surrounded by immense stars whose violent winds blow clouds of material off their surfaces. Black holes feed on star stuff. Those glowing clumps steaming toward you are the aftermath of stellar winds smashing into each other.
What’s with all the psychedelic colors? Anything blue or cyan is an X-ray emission from hot gas that can skyrocket into the millions of degrees, while red globs are UV emissions from denser, cooler — as in tens of thousands of degrees — gases. Globs that are yellow represent gases of the highest density.
Some of these gas clumps will crash into each other, creating a blaze of immense heat and setting off X-ray fireworks that could easily pass for special effects on Star Trek. You’ll also see stellar wind collisions spitting out X-rays if you gaze out into the distance. Most of the hot gas that Chandra sees is thought to be from those collisions.
Watch on, and you’ll see X-ray-emitting gas moving slowly until it gets in the vicinity of Sgr A*, when it will suddenly whoosh towards you in an electric blur of colors as it succumbs to the gravitational force of the black hole.
Gas ejected from outbursts that happen dangerously close to the black hole surprisingly doesn't have the same fate. Because it runs into gas swept off massive stars by stellar winds, it is pushed backwards instead of forwards into the gaping maw of the black hole. The gas is also set aglow with X-rays, making for a pretty awesome spectacle in VR.
For the ultimate experience of being a monster black hole in the middle of the galaxy, you’ll want to view this through VR goggles like Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR. For a less high-tech but still amazing visual, you can use the YouTube app on your smartphone and move the phone around to see 360 degrees of flaming stars and outbursts.
Phone dead? You can also click the arrows to move around if you’re at a laptop or desktop computer. Any way, though, you have to admit that Sgr A* has one mind-expanding view.