Black holes are a bit like babies when they eat: Some food goes in, and some gets flung back out into space. Astronomers now say they understand how these meals become so messy — and it’s a trait all black holes share, no matter their size.
Magnetic fields drive the turbulent winds that blow gas away from black holes, says Keigo Fukumura, an astrophysicist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Using X-rays emitted from a relatively small black hole siphoning gas from a nearby star, Fukumura and colleagues traced the winds flowing from the disk of stellar debris swirling around the black hole. Modeling these winds showed that magnetism, not other means, got the gas moving in just the right way.
The model was previously used to explain the way winds flow around black holes millions of times the mass of the sun. Showing that the model now also works for a smaller stellar-mass black hole suggests that magnetism may drive winds in black holes of all sizes. These results, published online March 6 in Nature Astronomy, could give clues to how black holes consume and expel matter and also to why some galaxies stop forming stars.
Astronomers first proposed that magnetic fields powered the winds around black holes in the 1970s, but the idea has been controversial. Directly observing the winds is impossible. Their existence is inferred by a black hole’s X-ray spectrum — an inventory of light…