NASA has shared a new visualisation of a black hole, demonstrating what one would look like up close, how light moves around it, and how its gravity distorts our view of it.
The new graphic shows how the black hole’s gravitational pull gathers matter into a ‘thin, hot structure’ known as an ‘accretion disk’ – a flat, spinning disk of gas, dust and debris which orbits the black hole.
This spinning disk is visible because the matter is accelerated to such an extent by the hole’s gravitational pull, the debris and particles smash into each, releasing X-rays and gamma rays which can be picked up on camera.
You can watch it here:
The gravitational pull is so strong in black holes, not even light can escape it, which is why the debris and particles gather around it, rather than inside it.
As Francis Reddy, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explains:
The black hole’s extreme gravity skews light emitted by different regions of the disk, producing the misshapen appearance.
Bright knots constantly form and dissipate in the disk as magnetic fields wind and twist through the churning gas. Nearest the black hole, the gas orbits at close to the speed of light, while the outer portions spin a bit more slowly. This difference stretches and shears the bright knots, producing light and dark lanes in the disk.
The light seems brighter on the left of the visualisation because the particles are moving so quickly they are given a ‘boost in brightness’, due to relativistic, or Doppler, beaming, as IFLScience explains. While the right side is dimmer as particles move away from us.
Also shown in the visualisation is the event horizon – the point at which, to escape the pull of the black hole, you’d have to travel faster than the speed of light. However, according to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, nothing in space can travel faster than the speed of light.
The thin ring of light closest to the black hole is the ‘photon ring’, where gravitational light-bending is at its most extreme, and the particles are circling the black hole for the last time before ‘escaping to reach our eyes.’
Jeremy Schnittman, who generated the images, said:
Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time. 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.
Earlier this year, the Event Horizon Telescope team did, however, capture the first ever photograph of a black hole. It must be said though, these new visualisations are rather more ‘HD’ than the real photo…
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.