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What color is around a black hole?

Black holes are some of the most mysterious and fascinating objects in our universe. They are formed when massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycles, creating an extremely dense region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. This gives black holes their name, as they appear completely black and void of light from our perspective. However, the area surrounding a black hole is a different story.

The Accretion Disk

As matter spirals towards a black hole, it forms a spinning disk structure known as an accretion disk. This disk can become extremely hot from friction and viscosity, reaching temperatures of millions of degrees. At these extreme temperatures, the material in the accretion disk emits electromagnetic radiation across the entire spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays.

Visible light is part of this emission spectrum, meaning the accretion disk has a distinct color. The specific color depends on the temperature of the disk, with hotter disks appearing bluer and cooler disks appearing redder. For a typical stellar mass black hole gobbling up material from a companion star, the innermost regions of the accretion disk can glow a brilliant blue-white.

Redshifted Light

The intense gravity around a black hole also redshifts any light emanating from the inner accretion disk. Redshifting refers to the gravitational stretching of light waves to longer wavelengths as they fight to escape the black hole’s gravitational pull. This reddening effect shifts visible light from the blue and violet end of the spectrum towards the red and infrared.

So while the accretion disk’s light originates at blue/white temperatures, it appears reddened to outside observers as the light climbs out of the black hole’s gravitational well. This makes the overall color of the accretion disk appear more whitish-orange than blue.

Black Hole Size

The size of a black hole also impacts the color of its accretion disk. Supermassive black holes millions or billions of times the Sun’s mass have accretion disks that can span thousands or millions of kilometers across.

The outer regions of such an enormous disk are much cooler than the innermost zones, radiating red and infrared light. This creates a banding effect of colors from the hot, blue/white center to the cooler, red/orange outskirts.

Black Hole Type Accretion Disk Size Accretion Disk Color
Stellar Hundreds of km Blueish white
Intermediate Thousands of km Whitish orange
Supermassive Millions of km Red/orange rims, blue/white center

This table summarizes how the size of different classes of black holes influences the color of the surrounding accretion disk.

Gas Jets and Winds

A black hole’s accretion disk can also eject material outward in dramatic jets and winds. This superheated inflowing and outflowing material glows across the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to infrared light.

When imaged by telescopes, these jets and winds add streaks and plumes of color surrounding the black hole. Different elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and iron glow in distinct wavelengths when heated, creating corresponding hues in observations.

Nearby Stars and Galaxies

The galaxies and individual stars surrounding a black hole can also contribute color to the environment. Background galaxies elongate and distort into dramatic streaks from the black hole’s gravity warping spacetime.

Nearby stars orbiting with the black hole may be visible up close, adding their cool hues against the hot accretion disk. This surrounding cosmic environment of stars and galaxies creates a vibrant tapestry of colors framed against the darkness of the central black hole.

Famous Black Hole Images

The first ever image of a black hole’s accretion disk was captured in 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). This image showed the supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy. The orange-yellow glow comes from the hot plasma being swallowed by the black hole.

In 2022, the EHT team released the first picture of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, its accretion disk appears as afuzzy reddish-orange ring of light.

These historic images prove that while black holes themselves emit no light, their luminous accretion disks and surrounding environments blaze with color.

Limitations on Observing Black Hole Colors

While astrophysicists have theories and models for the color of material around black holes, actually observing these colors is extremely challenging. Accretion disks and jets are tiny on cosmic scales, often spanning just a few million kilometers across even for supermassive black holes.

Also, much of the light emitted is blocked or scattered by interstellar gas and dust. And anything visible to the human eye would be outshone by the brightness of the surrounding stars and galaxies.

That’s why the EHT used radio waves to image black holes. Longer wavelength radio waves can penetrate cosmic dust clouds and have the resolution to discern tiny features near the black hole.

Future ultra-high resolution optical and infrared telescopes may provide direct glimpses of black holes’ visible color. For now, the true color remains elusive from Earth’s vantage point.

Artistic Depictions

Without direct color observations, artists can only imagine and depict what the environment around a black hole might look like. These visualizations paint the accretion disk and jets in dramatic hues and patterns for the public’s imagination.

However, experts caution these images rely heavily on conjecture and physics simulations. The true color likely varies on a case by case basis for different black holes depending on their size, spin, surrounding material, and other factors.


While black holes themselves emit no light, the surrounding accretion disk and cosmic neighborhood can glow with vibrant hues. Theorized colors range from the searing blue-white heat of the inner accretion disk to the redshifted bands of its outer regions. Streaking jets and winds punctuate the darkness with their hot glow.

Actually observing these colors is beyond current telescope technology. But future advances may open our eyes to the dramatic rainbow swirling around one of the universe’s most mysterious phenomena. For now, both scientists and artists can only imagine what shade of the spectrum might emerge from the stygian darkness of a black hole.