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 this kind of black hole system is one in which both members could maintain a long-lived accretion disk.
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.
The movie 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.