WATCH: NASA’s mesmerizing new black hole visualization

For Black Hole Week, NASA released a mesmerizing animation of what a black hole probably looks like.

WATCH: NASA’s mesmerizing new black hole visualization
  • In April 2019, scientists released the first image of a black hole, but its low resolution makes it hard to understand what a black hole might look like.
  • The new visualization was made using special software at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • Created by Jeremy Schnittman, the visualization hopefully makes Einstein's theory of special relativity a bit easier to understand.

In April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope team released the first image of a black hole — an extremely dense object from which not even light can escape. Capturing the image took hundreds of scientists, years of work and eight telescopes, but the low resolution makes it hard to get a sense of how black holes actually look. Now, a new NASA animation offers a clue.

The visualization, created by Jeremy Schnittman at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, shows how a black hole's gravity distorts the light around it, like a carnival mirror. The gravitational pull is so extremely strong that we're able to see, from our angle, light that's traveling under and behind the black hole. NASA writes:

"Seen nearly edgewise, the turbulent disk of gas churning around a black hole takes on a crazy double-humped appearance. The black hole's extreme gravity alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disk, producing the warped image. The black hole's extreme gravitational field redirects and distorts light coming from different parts of the disk, but exactly what we see depends on our viewing angle. The greatest distortion occurs when viewing the system nearly edgewise."


You might notice that the left side of the black hole's accretion disk — a ring of hot matter that orbits a black hole near the speed of light — appears brighter than the right side, a phenomenon that's explained by the Doppler effect.

"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," NASA wrote. "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."

The visualization hopefully makes it easier to understand Einstein's theory of special relativity.

"Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time," said Schnittman. "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."

It's currently Black Hole Week at NASA, so if you've ever wanted to learn more about one of the cosmos' strangest creations, you can head over to the agency's website.

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

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