Feature

Black Hole Explorer
10.01.07
With a lucky roll of the die and some crafty finances, students ages 10 and up could be well on their way to probing a black hole and winning the Nobel Prize.

The Black Hole Explorer board game challenges players to fly a spaceship into the vicinity of a black hole and research questions such as:

--What happens to space near a black hole?
--What happens to time near a black hole?
--What happens to a person near a black hole?

In the process, players learn a thing or two about the science of black holes, the hazards associated with them, and building a spacecraft on a limited budget.

The Black Hole Explorer game board features a spaceship orbiting outside of a series of circles around a black hole

The goal of the Black Hole Explorer board game is to design a spaceship, fly it near a black hole, and launch scientific probes into the black hole to study it. Image Credit: NASA

Black holes are spherical regions formed in space when a very massive star dies. Scientists believe that most galaxies contain black holes, and that our own Milky Way galaxy contains large numbers of them. Known for swallowing up nearby matter, black holes exert a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape, making the holes invisible. But black holes can be identified by observing their effects on the environment and matter around them.

In Black Hole Explorer, the goal is to design a spaceship, fly it near a black hole, and launch scientific probes into the black hole to study it. Individuals or teams may compete against each other, or a single player or team may play. The game supports NASA's goal of increasing the science and technology literacy of young people through hands-on and interactive educational activities.

After players read through a mission briefing and science briefing, the game starts with a roll of the die to determine the amount of money available for building the spaceship. Players then advance their spaceships around the board based on die rolls. Along the way, "Event Cards" can negatively and positively impact the mission. Hazards increase as the spaceship moves from the outermost two orbits -- the "Safe Zone" -- through the "Warning Zone" and eventually into the "Danger Zone."

A spaceship can launch probes once it's within a certain distance of the black hole. A roll of the die determines the success of the launch, and "Probe Result" cards reveal the information gathered by the probe about the black hole. The game is completed by orbiting back to home base, but that isn't as easy as it sounds! "Energy tokens" must be expended to fight the gravitational pull of the black hole.

In real life, several NASA spacecraft have studied black holes and their influence on surrounding space. These spacecraft include the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Galaxy Evolution Explorer and Swift. Future NASA missions designed to learn more about black holes include the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna and a group of four satellites called Constellation-X.

Black Hole Explorer was produced for NASA by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The game board and other materials are available on the Web in PDF document format. The Web site also includes resources for modifying the game to fit different learning settings, both informal and formal, and a PowerPoint presentation that elaborates on the information given in the "Probe Result" cards.

Related Resources
Black Hole Explorer Game  →
Chandra X-Ray Observatory
Galaxy Evolution Explorer  →
The Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission
NASA's Science Mission Directorate  →

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies