In 2019, NASA researchers released a visualization of a black hole, which looked like something out of Interstellar. Now, those same researchers have come out with another visualization featuring two black holes. And if you thought the first visualization was mind-altering, wait until you see the way a pair of supermassive bodies can (theoretically) bend light.
NASA theoretical astrophysicist and “black hole boffin,” Jeremy Schnittman, is behind both visualizations. He and his colleagues at NASA have apparently been hard at work inventing more ways to think about black holes. And this latest movie does indeed tease the imagination. So much so that you may end up feeling like you need an Advil.
In the video, Schnittman et al. show how the binary black holes swing around each other. Much in the same way Jack and Rose swung-dance around each other in Titanic. Although instead of arms, the black holes just have their ridiculously powerful gravitational pulls.
Jeremy Schnittman / NASA
Each black hole’s immense mass and density, and intense, consequent gravity, allows them to act as “gravitational lenses” for light. In the clip, light comes from the respective accretion disks of zipping gas—which move at 99% the speed of light—around each black hole. For a sense of scale, Schnittman says the black hole with the skirt of red, glowing gas has 200 million times the mass of the Sun.
“A striking aspect of this new visualization is the self-similar nature of the images produced by gravitational lensing,” Schnittman said in a NASA press release. “Zooming into each black hole reveals multiple, increasingly distorted images of its partner,” the astrophysicist added.
The black holes behave as gravitational lenses because their immense gravity bends and distorts light. Just like the lens of a telescope does. But in this case, because there are two “lenses” moving around each other, and both emit light, what we see is a bizarre, unthinkable combination of perspectives.
Both black holes produce small, edge-on images of their partners, NASA says. But 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.” (Imagine seeing the edge of a plate, and the top-down view of it, simultaneously.)
Jeremy Schnittman / NASA
As for how Schnittman and his colleagues created the visualization? With a NASA supercomputer, of course. In fact, they only had to use two percent of Discover, the space agency’s supercomputer with 129,000 processors, to visualize the binary dance. Which makes you wonder what the researchers could visualize using 100 percent of Discover. Until, that is, the cosmic headache sets in.
Feature image: Jeremy Schnittman / NASA