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NASA's New Black Hole Model


In the 2014 movie "Interstellar," a group of astronauts takes a wild ride to the outer reaches of the universe. Along the way, the crew gets spectacular views of a black hole.


MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) Heading towards blackness. (Unintelligible). It's all black.


I just saw that movie recently, and that drama just stays with you as they go towards that black hole. But in real life, we have only ever seen a blurry image of a black hole from telescopes that were revealed earlier this year. It looked like a glowing orange doughnut. Well, now NASA has produced a more dramatic version by creating a computer model of a black hole in 3D. Jeremy Schnittman is an astrophysicist with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

JEREMY SCHNITTMAN: It gives a better way to see the black hole from multiple angles, just like looking at a two-dimensional photograph versus a three-dimensional sculpture.

KING: OK. So what does it look like?

SCHNITTMAN: It looks kind of like Saturn. There's a big circle in the middle surrounded by a very thin disc of gas.

GREENE: OK, Saturn. So he says the black hole itself is nearly invisible. The Saturn-like image is made of gases trapped by the black hole's gravitational pull. Schnittman says the new computer model is going to help scientists better understand how black holes work.

KING: Now, we should note that NASA's new image does look a lot like the black hole from "Interstellar." Schnittman says when it came out, people said, finally, NASA has caught up with Hollywood. Here's what he thinks.

SCHNITTMAN: We're honored that the beauty of the image compares to Hollywood, but we do believe the science is more accurate.

GREENE: Jeremy Schnittman is an astrophysicist with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.