The world saw the first image of a black hole earlier this year. But to really appreciate the sheer power of these creatures, we need to see them in action.
That’s where a new visualization from NASA comes in: This mesmerizing gif, released on Wednesday in honor of Black Hole Week, captures the magnetic course of cosmic matter as it travels around a black hole. Trapped by the black hole’s gravity, the motion of all this material appears to vary both in speed and in degrees of light.
Although black holes are dark, cosmic voids in the vast universe, their feeding frenzies provoke a spectacular light show at their borders.
Black holes grow to be millions and billions times the mass of our sun by consuming material around them — a fate met by many unlucky stars that have been ripped apart after getting too close to these monsters. As its victims fall toward the black hole, all this accumulated matter forms an accretion disk. With more incoming matter, the disk heats up, and all that heat emits light in the form of x-rays.
As shown in this NASA illustration below, the strong gravitational pull of the black hole disrupts the light being produced by the disk. In the areas of the disk closer to the black hole, the gas tends to move a little faster (almost at the speed of light) than in the outer regions.
According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the gravity created by a large enough mass can warp space and time around it.
In this visualization, we’re seeing a head-on view of the black hole, but due to the effects of general relativity, the light at the top is actually coming from behind the black hole.
The matter in the accretion disk on the left is also much brighter than that found on the right, because the left side is moving towards our view while the right side is moving away from us.
The ring in the center is called a photon ring, and it shows the swirl of matter getting thinner and dimmer as it moves towards the inescapable shadow of the black hole.
Additionally, the gravitational force of the black hole tugs at the gas in the accretion disk, which results in bright knots. That’s the reason there are darker and lighter streams of matter in the disk.
Even as Black Hole Week draws to a close, there’s no reason to stop celebrating the sheer power of these misunderstood creatures. The closer we look at black holes using advanced technologies, the more odd they appear — leading to even more questions about the enigmatic hearts of the galaxies.