Watch: Dancing supermassive black holes

This visualization of two monstrous black holes gives astronomers a tangible look at these cosmic objects.
By | Published: May 6, 2021 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman and Brian P. Powell

The cosmic dance of two supermassive black holes is on display in this visualization, created by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Like two ballet dancers spinning on a grand stage, these black holes gracefully sweep toward one another in a hypnotic performance.

The superheated material around both black holes swirls around each object like water down a drain. The light from the black holes’ accretion disks, colored blue and red, shows off how the extreme gravity of the objects distorts our view.

The visualization also shows another phenomenon: relativistic aberration. From an edge-on view, the supermassive black holes appear smaller as they approach the observer and larger when they move away. Modeling these black holes also showed scientists how similar these visuals are to real black holes that distort images of their partner through gravitational lensing.

In the future, astronomers expect to detect ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves, produced by a real supermassive black hole pair, much like the one depicted in the video.