NASA Shows Us a Supermassive Black Hole in All Its Warped, Weird Glory

A visualization of a supermassive black hole.
The black hole’s extreme gravity alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disk, producing the warped image. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman

Do you remember what you were doing the day NASA revealed the first-ever image of a black hole?

Probably what you're doing right now: Staring at a screen and wondering what all the fuss is about.

Sure, the ingenuity and technical prowess needed to image M87* — a supermassive black hole more than 55 million light-years away — was extraordinary.

The first-ever image of the event horizon surrounding a distant black hole. (Photo: National Science Foundation)

But the picture itself? Let's be honest, that black hole wasn't about to suck the breath right out of our bodies. It might as well have been rendered by the first Nintendo Entertainment System.

Of course, technology will evolve and help us take much higher resolution photographs of what has for so long seemed un-photographable. In fact, the Event Horizon Telescope — instrumental in capturing M87* — is just getting started on its black hole photo album.

In the meantime, NASA has unveiled a simulation that's equal parts breath-catcher ... and mind-bender.

The top image is what an active supermassive black hole could look like when technology and imaging techniques take another bold leap forward and serve up the farthest reaches of the universe in brilliant high-resolution.

It's also what happens when we give gravity a paintbrush. See how the light swirls around the event horizon like a psychedelic Saturnian ring? That's the photon ring, where light can travel endlessly round and round the black hole's mouth.

Then there's the broader splash of light surrounding the chasm. It originates from an area behind the black hole known as its accretion disc, but our perspective here is from the edge of the disk.

The various elements of a black hole explained.
This image highlights and explains various aspects of the black hole visualization. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman

Note how the left side is brighter than the right? Again, that's a matter of perspective. The black hole is moving toward us, giving the light on one side a boost, while diminishing it on the other side. That phenomenon is known as relativistic beaming, or the Doppler effect.

And everything we see is stretched and warped under gravity's inescapable heel.

"Simulations and movies like these really help us visualize what Einstein meant when he said that gravity warps the fabric of space and time," notes Jeremy Schnittman, the NASA scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center who created the simulation. "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 all adds up to a mesmerizing portrait of a black hole — even if it can be a little technically exhausting.

But worry not. As part of NASA's Black Hole Week, the agency also got refreshingly un-technical with a safety video for kids. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the narrator cheerfully explains why a black hole is "absolutely not a good place to vacation."

For one thing, there's a good chance you won't be able to send postcards.

"And if you get close enough," the narrator continues, "You now have to worry about being stretched into a giant noodle and time getting really weird."

Then again, if you've got your fill of astrophysics for the day, the video itself may be the perfect vacation.

Go ahead and check it out below: