When two orbit supermassively black holes get close to each other, the results can be quite twisted. New NASA imaging shows how the irresistible traction of an extreme gravity bends and distorts light in the glowing rings of hot gas surrounding the black holes in a simulated binary system.
The animation shows two black holes: The largest of the pair, which is about 200 million more than the mass of our sun, is surrounded by red rings of hot gas called an accretion disk. Orbiting around this giant is a second black hole weighing about half that mass, and its gas and dust rings are illustrated in light blue.
Powerful gravitational forces pull and distort the fabric of spacetime as one black hole orbits around the other, bending the light from the fiery overhangs of the dance partners. And the closer you get to one of these deformed giants in the simulation, the more twisted the other one appears, NASA representatives said in a statement.
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“Zooming in each black hole reveals several, increasingly distorted images of its partner,” said Jeremy Schnittman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The gravitational pull in the center of a black hole is so irresistible that even light cannot escape. At its core is a dark region of infinite density known as an uncommon, bounded by the event horizon. Just outside the event horizon, gravity bends photons into a curve called a photon sphere. Spinning around this sphere are the rings of a growing disk of heating gas and dust, spinning at incredible speeds and spitting. electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays, radio waves, microwaves and gamma rays.
The imaging begins with an upper view of the smaller black hole orbiting around the larger one. At first no one seems much influenced by the proximity of the other, but that changes drastically after the point of view changes to the orbital plane. Now, as one black hole passes in front of the other, the light from the background object twists and envelops to follow a gravitational distortion. The visibly bright colors in the depiction are artistic choices, as overgrown discs in overcrowded black holes would emit light in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum. In the less massive black hole – the blue – gas in the disk would burn a little hotter than in the heavier black hole, according to the statement.
To create the simulation, Schnittman calculated how light produced in the overhead disks would curve around the deformed fabric of spacetime during the dance of the black holes. He calculated the frame-by-frame movements in about a day, using the discovery supercomputer cluster at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation at GSFC, according to the statement.
Most large galaxies are thought to have a massive black hole – one that is millions or even billions of times more massive than our sun – at their center. Binary systems for these monstrous black holes arise from galactic collisions, although in most cases the black holes spiral together so that only a fraction of fused galaxies retain two orbiting black holes, NASA reported in 2018. In such systems where both black holes are overcrowded, this amusing mirror distortion of bright light could last a very long time, Schnittman said in the statement.
“These are the kinds of black hole binary systems where we think both members could keep discrete disks lasting millions of years,” he said.
Originally published in Life Science