Scientists may know more about black holes today than ever before, but that doesn’t make them any easier to see. By their very nature, black holes swallow up light that gets too close, and the best (and, so far, only) image we’ve seen of an actual black hole still leaves a lot to the imagination.
But not being able to see a black hole up close doesn’t mean scientists can’t simulate what one might look like if it were sitting right in front of us, and NASA has done just that. The result is the gorgeous visualization you see here.
The intense gravitational pull of a black hole dramatically warps any light passing by it, while the fast-moving layer of material encircling it twists and bends. As NASA explains, the fact that one side of the material disk looks brighter than the other is a simple matter of physics.
Viewed from the side, the disk looks brighter on the left than it does on the right. Glowing gas on the left side of the disk moves toward us so fast that the effects of Einstein’s relativity give it a boost in brightness; the opposite happens on the right side, where gas moving away us becomes slightly dimmer. This asymmetry disappears when we see the disk exactly face on because, from that perspective, none of the material is moving along our line of sight.
When astronomers searched for a black hole to photograph for the first time, they had to wrestle with the fact that the black hole itself is not actually visible. Light, after all, can’t bounce off of it and reach us, so all we can see is the silhouette as light bends around it.
“Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time,” Jeremy Schnittman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. “Until very recently, these visualizations were limited to our imagination and computer programs. I never thought that it would be possible to see a real black hole.”