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New black hole image shows off vortex of magnetic chaos

The M87 galaxy’s supermassive black hole is looking sharper than ever

An image of the M87 supermassive black hole, captured by scientists of the Event Horizon Telescope and released on Wednesday.
EHT Collaboration

A new, detailed shot of a black hole reveals spiraling lines of mysterious magnetic forces that give astronomers an unprecedented look at how these cosmic monsters behave. It’s an intimate portrait of the black hole at the center of the gigantic M87 galaxy, which lies some 55 million light-years away from Earth.

Black holes are scattered across the universe and exist in almost every galaxy, but their behavior remains one of the most intriguing mysteries in astronomy. The image helps depict how the black hole violently swallows matter and shoots energetic jets back out from its core. Those jets can extend thousands of lightyears into space.

Today’s photo is from the same international team of radio astronomers who shot the first photo of a black hole, ever, in 2019. In the two years since then, more than 300 scientists have been scrutinizing data from that image as part of a global project called The Event Horizon Telescope. They found that a large portion of the dark-orange light surrounding the black hole’s mouth is filtered through a soup of magnetic energy that can be mapped and measured in unprecedented detail.

The first image of a black hole
The first image of a black hole released in 2019
Photo: The Event Horizon Telescope

So, putting on a pair of the radio-astronomy equivalent of polarized sunglasses, astronomers sharpened their focus on the cosmic body to reveal distinct lines of magnetic energy flowing inward.

The result is a “major milestone,” says Iván Martí-Vidal, coordinator of the Event Horizon Telescope’s Polarimetry Working Group. The new image helps astronomers better understand the physics behind the first image, he says. Today’s image hints at the role magnetic turbulence plays in a black hole’s ability to gobble up cosmic material and shoot matter out into the universe. Astronomers are still trying to understand what steers this chaos.