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Magnetic Fields Detected at Milky Way Galaxy's Central Black Hole for the First Time

First Posted: Dec 04, 2015 08:04 AM EST

For the first time ever, astronomers have detected magnetic fields just outside the event horizon of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Most people think of black holes like giant vacuum cleaners sucking in everything that gets too close. However, the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies are more like cosmic engines that convert energy into intense radiation that can outshine the light from surrounding stars. If the black hole is spinning, it can also generate strong jets that blast across thousands of light-years and shape entire galaxies. These black hole engines are thought to be powered by magnetic fields.

"Understanding these magnetic fields is critical. Nobody has been able to resolve magnetic fields near the event horizon until now," said Michael Johnson, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Now, scientists have witnessed this magnetic field for the Milky Way. The scientists used the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which is a global network of radio telescopes that link together to function as one giant telescope the size of Earth.

The Milky Way's black hole is Sagittarius A-star, and weighs about 4 million times that of our sun. However, its event horizon spans just 8 million miles. In this case, the researchers found that magnetic fields in some regions near the black hole are disorderly, with jumbled loops and whorls resembling intertwined spaghetti. In contrast, other regions showed a much more organized pattern, possibly in the region where jets would be generated.

"Once again, the galactic center is proving to be a more dynamic place than we might have guessed," said Johnson. "Those magnetic fields are dancing all over the place."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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