Black Holes: Clearest Infrared Milky Way Image Reveals Galaxy's Magnetic Fields

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The Milky Way's magnetic field lines revealed. Oxford University/Royal Astronomical Society/UTSA

Scientists have created the clearest infrared image yet of the center of the Milky Way, illuminating magnetic field lines that run through the galaxy.

The lines pictured in the high resolution map could shed light on our galaxy's supermassive black hole, which is obscured by enormous clouds of dust and gas.

The team attached an infrared camera to the Gran Telescopio Canarias on the island of La Palma to capture their image. Their research was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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This high-resolution infrared map reveals the magnetic field lines around the Milky Way's black hole in gas and dust. Oxford University/Royal Astronomical Society/UTSA

The Milky Way's black hole, Sagittarius A*, sits at the heart of the galaxy. The incredible speed of rotating stars around it suggest the black hole has a mass more than a million times greater than the sun. At its center lies an incredibly dense but tiny "singularity."

Sagittarius A*, while pretty close in astronomical terms, is blocked from view by swirling gas and dust. Scientists can peek through this veil by tracing the clouds' magnetic field lines.

"We're now able to watch material race around a black hole 25,000 light years away, and for the first time see magnetic fields there in detail," explained study leader Pat Roche, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, Britain, in a statement.

New revelations

The new map shows filaments of warm dust and hot gas meeting close to the black hole. Researchers think this may show where orbits of these streams converge.

The map also reveals that such filaments sustain their magnetically bound paths even in the face of strong winds from very bright stars at the center of the galaxy.

While scientists don't understand what generates the magnetic field in this area of the galaxy, it may be the case that the gravitational pull of the bright stars and Sagittarius A* are stretching out a smaller magnetic field.

Magnetic field lines run throughout galaxies

Magnetic field lines ebb and flow throughout the Milky Way. Objects like planets have their own magnetic fields, which can shift and flip over time. The Earth's magnetic field, for example, governs everything from cell phones to orbiting satellites. Some scientists believe Earth is overdue for a magnetic pole reversal, which might expose our planet to greater levels of radiation.

When it comes to black holes, scientists still have a lot of questions. At present, magnetic fields are theorized to force matter out of rotation around the black hole and into its extremely dense center. Scientists believe they also act like a slingshot, shooting powerful jets from the black hole's corona.

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The purple haze represents a jet flaring from the corona of a black hole in this illustration. JPL-Caltech/NASA