Interstellar travel remains a thing of science fiction, but if you would like to take a trip to the core of the Milky Way, NASA has got you covered. Thanks to the NASA Ames Supercomputer and observations by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, it is now possible to look at our galaxy from the unique vantage point of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole that resides at the very center of the Milky Way.
The simulation is focused on the handful of light-years that surround Sagittarius A*. What we are seeing in this beautiful visualization is about a dozen massive stars and their effect on interstellar space. These objects produce powerful stellar winds, which blow material away from their surfaces. This material clumps up, interacts with other gas flows, and speeds up and slows down.
The activity around the core is quite frenetic. The visualization has dense, relatively cool gas (in the tens of thousands of degrees) in yellow and less dense, cool gas in red. The X-ray emission of the hottest gas is seen in blue and cyan. That gas temperature is in the millions of degrees, which is why it shines in X-ray. Collisions between gas streams will show up as bright flashes of light.
Sagittarius A* is a supermassive black hole, but it is relatively small at only 22 million kilometers (13.7 million miles) in radius. Placed at the center of the Solar System, it wouldn’t even cover half the distance between the Sun and Mercury. Despite its size, it has a huge influence. It weighs over 4 million times the mass of our Sun and its gravity shapes what happens at the very center of the Milky Way.
In the simulation, you can see slow-moving X-ray gas starting far from the observer, but as it gets closer, the material speeds up and whips around the viewer as it would around the real black hole. The gas is then thrown back out, hitting the stellar winds, and pushing them back. It also shows the collision of fast stellar winds. These interactions are the brightest source of hot gas seen by Chandra.
The video below is designed with 360-degree technology, so it can be seen with VR gear, by moving your phone about, or by clicking and dragging if you're on a desktop. Click play if you want to be completely immersed in the galactic core.