A new visualisation of a black hole, released by NASA, illustrates how its gravity distorts our view by warping its surroundings.
The visualisation simulates the appearance of a black hole where infalling matter has collected into a thin, hot structure called an accretion disc (see illustration). The black hole’s extreme gravity skews light emitted by different regions of the disc, producing the misshapen appearance, NASA explained in the release.
As magnetic fields twist through the churning gas, bright knots form and dissipate in the disc. In the area closest to the black hole, the gas orbits at close to the speed of light. The outer portions spin a bit more slowly. This difference stretches and shears the bright knots, producing light and dark lanes in the disk.
“Seen nearly edgewise, the turbulent disc of gas churning around a black hole takes on a crazy double-humped appearance,” NASA said. The black hole’s extreme gravity alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disc, producing the warped image. Exactly what we see depends on our viewing angle; the greatest distortion occurs when viewing the system nearly edgewise.
“Viewed from the side, the disc looks brighter on the left than it does on the right,” NASA added. Glowing gas on the left side moves toward us so fast that the effects of Einstein’s relativity give it a boost in brightness. On the right side, gas moving away becomes slightly dimmer. This asymmetry disappears when we see the disc exactly face on because, from that perspective, none of the material is moving along our line of sight.