The extreme and warped reality of black holes

A new visual depiction of a black hole's impressive gravity by NASA reveals its warping of space and time. Full credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman

If there were a safe way to approach a black hole and see how it worked, it might look something like this. A new visual depiction of a black hole’s impressive gravity by NASA reveals its warping of space and time. We’ve given an edgewise view of a black hole that almost doesn’t seem possible.

In the image, a simulated black hole is surrounded by accumulated matter that’s being pulled toward it. The particles are in a thin accretion disk, where the swirling pace nears the speed of light. The temperatures heat up the material and cause the material to glow. The outer part of the disk spins at a slower rate.

The light appears in different wavelengths due to the black hole’s gravity, causing its skewed appearance. The fast rate near the center of the black hole and slower rate on the outside of the disc clash, pulling the light into different lanes.

The left side of the disk also appears brighter than the right. This is because the gas appears to be moving toward our viewpoint, while it’s moving away on the right side and appears dimmer.

A thin ring at the center, called the “photon ring,” is really the underside of the accretion disk. Here, it looks like a ring outlining the black hole. But it really signifies a progression of rings as they become more faint and thin, representing light circling the black hole before it escapes.

Within the photon ring is the shadow of the black hole, the point of no return known as the event horizon.

“Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time,” said Jeremy Schnittman, who generated the image at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “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, astronomers were able to capture an image of a black hole’s shadow for the first time.

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