What a supermassive black hole probably looks like revealed

Scientists have created a video showing what the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy might look like if you were unlucky enough to fall into it.

Despite being around 4 million times the mass of the sun, Sagittarius A* - as it's known - has never been directly seen. Its existence was only confirmed a few weeks ago, when telescopes detected clumps of gas swirling around it at 30 percent the speed of light.

Black holes got their name because nothing - not even light - can escape their pull, once it gets close enough. That makes them incredibly hard to find, let alone see.

But a new 360-degree virtual reality animation produced by scientists in the Netherlands and Germany is the best guess yet at what Sagittarius A* would look like if we could get a close-up look.

"We all have a picture in our head of how 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," said Heino Falcke, professor at Radboud University .

The simulation shows a mass of light and plasma swirling around the black hole's core, known as the accretion disk.

"Due to the strong pull of the black hole, the view gets deformed, and you see a dark patch in the sky that bends the starlight around it," PhD astrophysics student Jordy Davelaar, who contributed to the research, wrote in a blog post about the animation.

"When matter starts to accrete onto the black hole, it lights up, the closer it gets, the more light it emits, due to the presence of magnetic fields a magnetic outflow; a jet is launched from the accretion flow, allowing some of the matter to escape. At this point in the video, you start to move into the flow yourself; orbiting the black hole at a close distance where your velocity goes up rapidly, starlight becomes less visible due to the high optical depth of the flow.

"Luckily, you escape via the magnetised jet."

Mr Davelaar says using virtual reality, they've been able to create "one of the most realistic views of the direct surroundings of the black hole" which will help them "to learn more about how black holes behave".

"Travelling 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."

black hole Sagittarius A*
Despite being around 4 million times the mass of the sun, Sagittarius A* has never been directly seen. Photo credit: BMC/Computational Astrophysics and Cosmology

Last month, NASA released its own animation showing what might happen when two supermassive black holes collide - such as might happen when our galaxy collides with Andromeda in the distant future. 

The research behind the latest animation was published in journal Computational Astrophysics and Cosmology.