NASA Visualization Reveals How a Black Hole Warps Its Surroundings Like a Carnival Mirror

NASA has released a spectacular visualization of a simulated black hole which beautifully demonstrates how the extreme gravitational forces produced by such objects distorts the light around them like a carnival mirror.

The visualization shows a black hole—remnants of stars that died in cataclysmic cosmic explosions known as supernovae—from different angles to show what one might look like if we were able to observe it from afar in space.

One of the most visible features is the black hole's "accretion disk"—a hot, thin, rotating disk formed by matter which is slowly spiralling into the center of the object. As this matter is being sucked in, the light emitted from it is distorted, producing the a distinctive "double-humped" appearance.

The matter in the disk that is closest to the center moves the fastest, orbiting at close to the speed of light. Meanwhile, the outer portions of the disk travel slightly slower.

When we look at the black hole from the side, the left of the accretion disk appears to be brighter than the right. This can be explained by a phenomenon known as "Doppler beaming" in which the apparent brightness of matter travelling close to the speed of light is modified by the effects of phenomena described by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

As a result of Doppler beaming, the material on the left appears to become brighter because it is moving towards us, while the matter on the right seems to darken because it is moving away from our point of view. When we look at the black hole directly face-on, however, the differences in brightness are no longer visible because the matter in the disk is moving neither towards or away from us.

black hole visualization
This image highlights and explains various aspects of the black hole visualization. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman

In the center of the visualization is an area devoid of light known as the "black hole shadow," which is about twice the size of the event horizon—the boundary beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape due the extreme gravitational pull.

The event horizon is named as such because it is impossible to observe any event taking place inside it. Within the event horizon, lies the singularity at the center of the black hole—a one-dimensional point where gravity is predicted to be infinite and the laws of physics as we know them break down.

Finally, around the center of the black hole lies the "photon ring"—which looks nearly circular and identical from any viewing angle in the visualization. This feature is composed of multiple distorted images of the disk. In fact, the light that makes up these images may have orbited the black hole several times before escaping and becoming visible to us.

"Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time," Jeremy Schnittman, who created the images at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

"Until very recently, these visualizations were limited to our imagination and computer programs. I never thought that it would be possible to see a real black hole," he said.

However, in April this year, scientists working with the Event Horizon Telescope—a global network of radio telescopes—made history by releasing the first ever images of a black hole, located at the center of the galaxy M87 about 53 million light-years away. Scientists think that almost every large galaxy in the universe has a supermassive black hole at its center.

"Creating this movie was a two-step process," Schnittman told Newsweek. "First, I wrote a computer program to calculate how light moves around a black hole, and how it would look to a camera far away. Then the second step was to model the hot gas orbiting the black hole, including many physics 'ingredients' like magnetic fields and hydrodynamics. Combining the two gives the final product: a distorted, dynamic, turbulent disk."

"I am a very visual learner, so I found that simulating images of black holes and the gas orbiting around them really helped me understand the physics involved, much more so than just staring at the equations," he said. "And sharing movies like this with others allows us to show off how beautiful and awe-inspiring an esoteric theory like general relativity can be."

But how close is this visualization to the view that an astronaut would see in real life if they were ever able to travel close to a black hole?

"I'd like to think it is quite accurate, at least as accurate as we can do with our current understanding of black holes," Schnittman said. "But I should warn you: the gas in the disk could easily reach millions or even billions of degrees, so I certainly wouldn't recommend the astronauts get too close! Just as an example, if the sun were a black hole surrounded by this type of hot gas disk, not only would Earth be completely uninhabitable, but even the surface of Pluto would get so hot it would boil!"

This article was updated to include additional comments from Jeremy Schnittman.