NASA Visualization Probes the Doubly Warped World of Binary Black Holes

  • Released Thursday, April 15th, 2021
  • Updated Monday, November 6th, 2023 at 3:37PM

Explore how the extreme gravity of two orbiting supermassive black holes distorts our view. In this visualization, disks of bright, hot, churning gas encircle both black holes, shown in red and blue to better track the light source. The red disk orbits the larger black hole, which weighs 200 million times the mass of our Sun, while its smaller blue companion weighs half as much. Zooming into each black hole reveals multiple, increasingly warped images of its partner. Watch to learn more.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Music: "Gravitational Field" from Orbit. Written and produced by Lars Leonhard.

Watch this video on the NASA Goddard YouTube channel.

Complete transcript available.

A pair of orbiting black holes millions of times the Sun’s mass perform a hypnotic dance in this NASA visualization. The movie traces how the black holes distort and redirect light emanating from the maelstrom of hot gas – called an accretion disk – that surrounds each one.

Viewed from near the orbital plane, each accretion disk takes on a characteristic warped look. But as one passes in front of the other, the gravity of the foreground black hole transforms its partner into a rapidly changing sequence of arcs. These distortions play out as light from the accretion disks navigates the tangled fabric of space and time near the black holes.

The simulated binary contains two supermassive black holes, a larger one with 200 million solar masses and a smaller companion weighing half as much. Astronomers think that in binary systems like this, both black holes could maintain accretion disks for millions of years.

The disks have different colors, red and blue, to make it easier to track the light sources, but the choice also reflects reality. Gas orbiting lower-mass black holes experiences stronger effects that produce higher temperatures. For these masses, both accretion disks would actually emit most of their light in the UV, with the blue disk reaching a slightly higher temperature.

Visualizations like this help scientists picture the fascinating consequences of extreme gravity’s funhouse mirror.

Seen nearly edgewise, the accretion disks look noticeably brighter on one side. Gravitational distortion alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disks, producing the warped image. The rapid motion of gas near the black hole modifies the disk’s luminosity through a phenomenon called Doppler boosting – an effect of Einstein’s relativity theory that brightens the side rotating toward the viewer and dims the side spinning away.

The visualization also shows a more subtle phenomenon called relativistic aberration. The black holes appear smaller as they approach the viewer and larger when moving away.

These effects disappear when viewing the system from above, but new features emerge. Both black holes produce small images of their partners that circle around them each orbit. Looking closely, it’s clear that these images are actually edge-on views. To produce them, light from the black holes must be redirected by 90 degrees, which means we’re observing the black holes from two different perspectives – face on and edge on – at the same time. Zooming into each black hole reveals multiple, increasingly distorted images of its partner.

The visualization, created by astrophysicist Jeremy Schnittman at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, involved computing the path taken by light rays from the accretion disks as they made their way through the warped space-time around the black holes. On a modern desktop computer, the calculations needed to make the movie frames would have taken about a decade. So Schnittman teamed up with Goddard data scientist Brian P. Powell to use the Discover supercomputer at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation. Using just 2% of Discover’s 129,000 processors, these computations took about a day.

Astronomers expect that, one day, they’ll be able to detect gravitational waves – ripples in space-time – produced when two supermassive black holes in a system much like the one Schnittman depicted spiral together and merge.

In this visualization, available in HD and 4K, a binary system containing two supermassive black holes and their accretion disks is initially viewed from above. After about 25 seconds, the camera tips close to the orbital plane to reveal the most dramatic distortions produced by their gravity. The different colors of the accretion disks make it easier to track where light from each black hole turns up.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

A face-on view of the system highlights the smaller black hole's distorted image (inset) of its bigger companion. To reach the camera, the smaller black hole must bend light from its red companion by 90 degrees. In this secondary image, the accretion disk forms a line, which means we're seeing an edge-on view of the red companion – while also simultaneously seeing it from above. A secondary image of the blue disk can be seen just outside the bright ring of light nearest the larger black hole, too.  Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

A face-on view of the system highlights the smaller black hole's distorted image (inset) of its bigger companion. To reach the camera, the smaller black hole must bend light from its red companion by 90 degrees. In this secondary image, the accretion disk forms a line, which means we're seeing an edge-on view of the red companion – while also simultaneously seeing it from above. A secondary image of the blue disk can be seen just outside the bright ring of light nearest the larger black hole, too.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Viewing the system from above and centering the camera on the smaller black hole shows how the secondary image of its partner rotates every orbit. Although subtle, the motion also reveals the non-circular shape of the surrounding rings of light and the inner edge of the blue accretion disk, a distortion produced by the combined effects of gravity and near-lightspeed orbital motion.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

This image shows the warped view of a larger supermassive black hole (red disk) when it passes almost directly behind a companion black hole (blue disk) with half its mass. The gravity of the foreground black hole transforms its partner into a surreal collection of arcs. These distortions play out as light from the accretion disks navigates the tangled fabric of space and time near the black holes.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

This image shows the warped view of a larger supermassive black hole (red disk) when it passes almost directly behind a companion black hole (blue disk) with half its mass. The gravity of the foreground black hole transforms its partner into a surreal collection of arcs. These distortions play out as light from the accretion disks navigates the tangled fabric of space and time near the black holes.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

This image shows the warped view of a larger supermassive black hole (red disk) when it passes seen almost directly behind a companion black hole (blue disk) with half its mass. The gravity of the foreground black hole transforms its partner into a surreal collection of arcs. Insets highlight areas where one black hole produces a complete but distorted image of the other. Light from the accretion disks produces these self-similar images as it travels through the tangled fabric of space and time near both  black holes.High-resolution views of the numbered insets are available below.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

This image shows the warped view of a larger supermassive black hole (red disk) when it passes seen almost directly behind a companion black hole (blue disk) with half its mass. The gravity of the foreground black hole transforms its partner into a surreal collection of arcs. Insets highlight areas where one black hole produces a complete but distorted image of the other. Light from the accretion disks produces these self-similar images as it travels through the tangled fabric of space and time near both black holes.

High-resolution views of the numbered insets are available below.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 1 from the compilation above, showing an image of the smaller companion formed near the light ring of the larger black hole.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 1 from the compilation above, showing an image of the smaller companion formed near the light ring of the larger black hole.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 2 from the compilation above, showing a highly distorted image of the smaller companion formed by the larger black hole.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 2 from the compilation above, showing a highly distorted image of the smaller companion formed by the larger black hole.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 3 from the compilation above, showing even more distorted images of both accretion disks, formed by light deflecting multiple times between the two black holes.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 3 from the compilation above, showing even more distorted images of both accretion disks, formed by light deflecting multiple times between the two black holes.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 4 from the compilation above, showing another warped image of the smaller companion formed by the larger black hole.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

Inset 4 from the compilation above, showing another warped image of the smaller companion formed by the larger black hole.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

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