Interstellar's Simulated Black Hole is Paving the Way for Astrophysicist Research

First Posted: Feb 13, 2015 11:53 AM EST

The team responsible for the visual effects in the movie, Interstellar, have now shed a bit more light on the powerful effects of black holes. They've described the innovative computer code that was used to generate the movie's iconic images, and explain how it's led to new scientific discoveries.

Using their code, the Interstellar team actually found that when a camera is close up to a rapidly spinning black hole, peculiar surfaces in space, called caustics, create more than a dozen images of individual stars and of the thin, bright plane of the galaxy in which the black hole lives. These images are actually concentrated along one edge of the black hole's shadow.

So what causes the illusion of these multiple images? It's caused by the black hole dragging space into a whirling motion and stretching the caustics around itself many times. This is actually the first time that the effects of caustics have been computed for a camera near a black hole.

During work for the movie, the researchers found that the standard approach of using just one light ray for one pixel in a computer code resulted in flickering as the stars and nebulae moved across the screen.

"To get rid of the flickering and produce realistically smooth pictures for the movie, we changed our code in a manner that has never been done before," said Oliver James, co-author of the new study, in a news release. "Instead of tracing the paths of individual light rays using Einstein's equations-one per pixel-we traced the distorted paths and shapes of light beams."

In the end, the researchers created smooth images. But this wasn't just good for the movie; it also helps astrophysicists studying phenomena in space.

"Once our code, called DNGR for Double Negative Gravitational Renderer, was mature and creating the images you see in the movie Interstellar, we realized we had a tool that could easily be adapted for scientific research," said James.

The new code could tell astrophysicists and scientists a little bit more about the universe and the black holes within it. Already, the researchers are using DNGR to carry out a number of research simulations exploring the influence of caustics on the images of distant star fields.

The findings are published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

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