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The geometry of space-time warping at the edges of a black hole

The geometry of space-time warping at the edges of a black hole

Gravity distorts our vision, distorting its surroundings as if viewed through a carnival mirror. The simulation depicts the look of a black hole in which infalling matter has accumulated into a narrow, heated structure known as an accretion disk. The tremendous gravity of the black hole skews light emitted by different areas of the disk, resulting in a deformed appearance.

As magnetic fields wind and twist through the swirling gas, bright knots develop and disappear in the disk. The gas circles the black hole very close to the speed of light, while the outer parts spin more slowly.

This variation extends and rips the brilliant knots, resulting in light and dark lanes in the disk.

Seen nearly edgewise, the turbulent disk of gas churning around a black hole takes on a crazy double-humped appearance. The black hole’s extreme gravity alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disk, producing the warped image. The black hole’s extreme gravitational field redirects and distorts light coming from different parts of the disk, but exactly what we see depends on our viewing angle. The greatest distortion occurs when viewing the system nearly edgewise.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman

When viewed from the side, the disk seems brighter on the left than on the right. The glowing gas on the left side of the disk flows so quickly toward us that the effects of Einstein’s relativity increase its brightness; the converse happens on the right side, where gas traveling away from us gets significantly darker. This asymmetry vanishes when we look at the disk exactly face-on because none of the material moves along our line of sight.

The gravitational light-bending gets so strong closest to the black hole that we can see the underside of the disk as a brilliant ring of light presumably outlining the black hole. This so-called “photon ring” is made up of several rings that get fainter and thinner as they go around the black hole two, three, or even more times before reaching our vision. The photon ring appears almost round and similar from every viewing angle because the black hole depicted in this image is spherical. The black hole’s shadow, about twice the size of the event horizon — its point of no return — is contained within the photon ring.

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

“Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time,” explains Jeremy Schnittman, who generated these gorgeous images using custom software 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.”  Yet on April 10, the Event Horizon Telescope team released the first-ever image of a black hole’s shadow using radio observations of the heart of the galaxy M87.

NASA Visualization Shows a Black Hole’s Warped World, Francis Reddy

Published: September 2019

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