ScienceShot: Black Holes Are Messy Eaters

Intense magnetic fields near a black hole known as Cygnus X-1 may be stripping electrons from infalling material just milliseconds before it passes a point of no return and disappears within the black hole, according to new observations by the INTEGRAL gamma-ray observatory. The fields then channel these electrons away, allowing them to escape via powerful jets of material and radiation. The key evidence—the polarization of gamma rays emitted by material just before it is swept into the black hole—is reported online this week in Science. Because gamma-ray photons form only a small part of the radiation emitted by the black hole, researchers had to stitch together dozens of observations made by an Earth-orbiting telescope over the past 8 years to discern the polarized radiation. Although scientists still aren't sure how the jets spewing from the poles of black holes (see image) originate, the new image—one equivalent to taking a single time-lapse photo more than 5 million seconds, or more than 2 months, long—indicates that the magnetic fields near Cygnus X-1 may be hundreds of thousands of times stronger than Earth's.

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