NASA animation shows two supermassive black holes orbiting each other

In the heart of each galaxy is a black hole, where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape its boundary. Sometimes, when two galaxies merge, their black holes are caught in blocking steps, always surrounding themselves in an interstellar tango.

A new animation from NASA reveals what it might look like if you filmed in action a pair of supermassive black holes, known as the binary system.

In the view, the black holes are marked in different colors. The orange one is 200 million times more massive than the sun. His blue companion weighs about half. Both are surrounded by shiny rings of hot gas and space debris, known as storage disk.

When one black hole moves in front of the other, its strong gravity distorts the light on its partner’s storage disk.

As a result, the black hole in the background seems to warp into pieces that slip around each other – a bit like a fun mirror.

Once the black holes pass through each other, those distorted pieces seem to flow back together.

Black holes look different depending on the point of view

Black holes appear smaller as they approach the viewer and larger as they move further in the background, according to Jeremy Schnittman, a NASA astrophysicist who created the new animation.

Using a group of supercomputers, Schnittman was able to calculate, frame by frame, how the light on both storage disks would bend as the two black holes danced around each other. Normally, these calculations would have lasted a decade on a modern one

desktop computer
, but Schnittman completed them in about a day.

Its visualization shows that the components of the black hole change in appearance depending on how you look at them.

When viewed from above or below, the accumulation disk of any black hole looks like an almost perfect circle, with a tiny image of its partner reflected near the center.

“Zooming into every black hole reveals multiple, increasingly distorted images of his partner,” Schnittman said in a statement.

black hole

An animation of a black hole, seen from above or below.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

However, from a side view, the storage disk looks like a rainbow of fire creeping around the center of the black hole. That rainbow deforms when the black holes pass next to each other.

From this point of view, the storage disc appears brighter on one side than the other. As a black hole rotates, so does the gas cloud and the debris that orbits it. So the material of the disk moving towards our eyes would look brighter than the material moving away – a bit like the headlight of a lighthouse.

Static image of NASA's black hole

An animation of a black hole as seen from the side.

NASA / Jeremy Schnittman Goddard Space Flight Center

According to Schnittman, a pair of black holes like the ones described in the new animation will eventually merge into a gargantuan black hole – but not before dancing on top of each other for a long time.

“These are the types of black hole binary systems in which we believe both members could maintain accumulation disks for millions of years,” he said.

Aria Bendix contributed to the reporting of this story.