The background: The Event Horizon telescope made history on April 10, 2019, when it was released the very first image of a black hole. The bright orange circle, located 53 million light years away, was photographed by eight radio observatories on four separate continents. Their combined resolution was able to peer down to the center of M87 and glimpse the glowing light of ultra-hot gas and dust swirling around the event horizon of the supermassive black hole (the point of no return, where the black hole’s gravity is so powerful that no light or matter can escape its clutches).
What’s new here: In one pair of new studies published in the Astrophysical Journal, astronomers scoured the archives of the data that led to the first image and analyzed the movement of polarized light around the object. Light waves normally oscillate back and forth in many different directions. But these waves can be polarized by magnetic fields and this oscillation is limited to a single linear plane. This light effectively traces the black hole’s magnetic field lines, creating a sharper visual than the blurry donut shown in 2019.
Why is this important: Magnetic fields shape the way matter around the black hole moves and swirls, which can affect a black hole’s eating habits and course. By studying how these magnetic fields work and change over time, scientists can better understand how the accreting material around the black hole behaves and how it is influenced, which can inevitably help us tell more about the formation of supermassive black holes and their growth.