New computer simulations show the effects of a black hole’s enormous gravity on radiation emitted from a rotating accretion disk of super-heated debris. Click the image above for animation showing how the view changes depending on the viewer’s location. Image: Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman
Black holes are, by definition, invisible, the collapsed remnants of once massive stars with such enormous gravity that not even light can escape. But as gas and dust are sucked inward, spiralling into an accretion disk around the unseen hole, atoms and molecules are accelerated to enormous velocities, generating extreme temperatures and high-energy radiation that is, in fact, visible.
A new visualisation from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center illustrates how a black hole’s concentrated gravity warps the space surrounding it much like a carnival mirror distorts reflections.
Seen from an edge-on perspective, the accretion disc has a distinctly asymmetric appearance, with gas on the left side moving toward the viewer at such high speeds that radiation is given a relativistic boost in brightness. Gas on the right side that’s moving away from the viewer is slightly dimmer. The asymmetry vanishes when the disc is viewed face on because none of the material is moving along ...