New visualization from NASA shows black holes ‘dance’, distorting light

(ORDO NEWS) — A pair of orbiting black holes of millions of solar masses perform a hypnotic paired pirouette in a new visualization from NASA. In this animation, black holes distort and redirect light emitted from the side of a disk made of gas heated by gravitational contraction – the so-called accretion disk – that surrounds each black hole.

If you look at the accretion disk from its orbital plane, then the disk has two bulges. However, when one black hole passes in front of another, the gravity in front of the black hole distorts the light emitted from the material surrounding the other black hole, causing the latter to appear in images taken on Earth as rapidly alternating arcs.

“We see two supermassive black holes, one about 200 million times the mass of the Sun and the other about half the mass,” said Jeremy Schnittman, astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, USA, and creator of this new visualization. “In such binary systems, each of the black holes is surrounded by a stable disk for millions of years.”

In the animation shown, the accretion discs are painted in different colors, red and blue, to make it easier to distinguish between different light sources, but this choice partly reflects reality. Hotter gas emits light at a wavelength shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum, and material orbiting smaller black holes experiences a more powerful gravitational influence, resulting in higher temperatures. In the case of black holes, which have masses like the one shown in this visualization, both accretion disks actually emit in the ultraviolet range, while the temperature of the blue disk is actually slightly higher than the temperature of the red disk, Schnittman explained.

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