Astronomers have traced the magnetic field lines around the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole. Thus, producing the first high-resolution map of the center of the Milky Way.

You can find warm gas in the galaxy’s Central Molecular Zone (CMZ). Massive bursts of star formation heat this gas. They surround the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the nucleus of the galaxy. The SMBH of the Milky Way is Sagittarius A*.

However, because the Milky Way is full of light-blocking gas and dust we don’t know much about Sagittarius A*. So, there are still many questions about it.

In a paper published in January in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers shed a bit of light on this black hole. They produced a new high-resolution map that traces the magnetic field lines present within gas and dust swirling around Sagittarius A*. The team created the map by observing polarized infrared light that is emitted by warm, magnetically aligned dust grains. Also, the map is the first of its kind.

“This collaborative work is an exciting step forward in our collective efforts to gain a greater understanding of our own galaxy and the supermassive black hole at the center of it,” said Chris Packham, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in a press release. “It also demonstrates the importance of access to the largest telescopes using advanced cameras [and] techniques.”

The Telescope

The team used the CanariCam infrared camera on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) to create the detailed map. The telescope is located in La Palma, Spain. The map spans about one light-year on each side of Sagittarius A*.

Infrared light passes straight through the visual-light-blocking dust which lies between Earth and the Milky Way’s core. So, astronomers could see the area around Sagittarius A* much more clearly than would have been possible with other types of telescopes.

“Big telescopes like GTC and instruments like CanariCam deliver real results,” said Pat Roche, a professor of astrophysics at The University of Oxford, in a press release. “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.”

The new observations not only gives us stunning visual displays but also provide astronomers with useful and vital information.

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Thumbnail image: Red areas show regions where warm dust particles and stars are emitting lots of infrared radiation (heat), while dark blue areas show cooler regions that lack pronounced warm and dusty filaments. Credit: E. Lopez-Rodriguez/NASA Ames/University of Texas at San Antonio