NASA has just released a video that visualizes a pair of orbiting supermassive black holes that trace how they distort and redirect light emanating from the maelstrom of hot gas – called an accretion disk – that surrounds each one. When viewed from near the orbital plane, each accretion disk has a double-humped look, but as they pass in front of one another, the gravity of the foreground black hole transforms its partner into a rapidly changing sequence of arcs. Read more for the video and additional information.
Why do the accretion disks have different colors? Well, the red and blue make it easier to track the light sources. In reality, the gas gives off light closer to the blue end of the spectrum, and material orbiting smaller black holes experiences stronger gravitational effects that produce higher temperatures. Showing these two colors helps scientists picture the fascinating consequences of extreme gravity’s fun-house mirror.
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We’re seeing two supermassive black holes, a larger one with 200 million solar masses and a smaller companion weighing half as much. These are the kinds of black hole binary systems where we think both members could maintain accretion disks lasting millions of years,” said Jeremy Schnittman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who created the visualization.