A Front-Row Seat to a Black Hole in Action

A gas cloud is nearing a black hole — and the celestial fireworks show is going to be impressive

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ESO / MPE / Marc Schartmann

A simulation of how the gas cloud may break apart as it approaches the black hole

If you want to feel a shiver of cosmic menace, just ponder black holes. Venture a bit too close to one of these voracious monsters, and you’ll never get out — although it hardly matters, since you’ll be torn to shreds and flash-heated to millions of degrees along the way. Star-size black holes are bad enough, but the supermassive holes that lurk at the centers of most galaxies are millions of times more powerful. When they swallow a star or a giant gas cloud, we call the resulting flare of energy a quasar, which can be visible halfway across the universe.

(PHOTOS: A Room with a View: Scenes from the International Space Station)

Now it’s about to happen — albeit with less spectacular fireworks — right in our backyard. Back in 2011, astronomers spotted an interstellar gas cloud plunging more or less toward the Milky Way’s own supermassive black hole, which is about the mass of 4 million suns. And by the scientists’ calculations, the cloud will meet its doom this coming September or October. “The impact will be deeper and more exciting than we thought,” says Stefan Gillessen of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and the lead author of the Nature report that first announced the cloud’s existence.

(MORE: The Milky Way’s Mystery Cloud)

Ordinarily, astronomers would expect an interstellar cloud like this (as well as any stars in the vicinity) to be orbiting the central black hole at an angle, spiraling in only gradually. Not this one, though. “It’s remarkable how directly it’s moving toward the black hole,” says Reinhard Genzel of the University of California, Berkeley, one of Gillessen’s co-authors. “Someone really aimed it very well.”

Astronomers have already seen changes in the cloud’s structure since it was first discovered. “There are clear signs that it’s being stretched,” says Gillessen. That’s a result of tidal forces: the cloud’s leading edge feels the black hole’s gravity much more strongly than the trailing edge. The difference in speed between front and rear is about 360 miles (580 km) per second, and by April, says Gillessen, “we’re pretty sure the cloud should be starting to shred apart.” It is reminiscent, albeit on a much larger scale, of the fragmentation of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, which was tidally broken apart by Jupiter’s gravity before plunging to its death in July 1994.

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Even at its closest approach later in the year, the cloud fragments will not have reached the black hole’s Schwarzschild radius — the point of no return, where a final plunge into infinite density and pressure is inescapable. But it should soon be slamming into the black hole’s “atmosphere” — the thin haze of gas that whirls around it at a safe distance. “That could create shock waves, which could be visible in X-ray wavelengths,” says Gillessen.

The bits of cloud may eventually funnel into the black hole itself, orbiting faster and faster, like water spiraling down a drain as the cloud’s own internal friction heats it to millions of degrees, giving off bursts of energy as it goes. Nobody knows quite how long it might take for that to happen. “I don’t necessarily expect fireworks next fall,” says Genzel, “but there could be. It might be that bits and pieces might shoot directly in.”

(MORE: The Ancient Space Storm That Struck the Earth)

Astronomers around the world will be tuned in just in case. “People will be looking with telescopes in all wave bands, from radio to gamma rays,” says Gillessen. “There’s a list of proposals from those who want to observe it. We’ll certainly see the cloud shredded this year … Whether we see something more, well, that’s the fun part.”

MORE: How to Escape from a Black Hole

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30 comments
BettyGibbs8
BettyGibbs8

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jasperpopeye
jasperpopeye

The center of the galaxy is about 250,000 light years away so this happened about 250,000 years ago. Just a small technicality the author failed to mention.

IliaPonomarenko
IliaPonomarenko

Holy terror, I shouldn't have read this in the night....Now I fell scary about these monsters ;((

cpc65
cpc65 like.author.displayName 1 Like

There's no supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. There's an evil god-like being that needs to possess a starship in order to get free of it's prison at the center of the galaxy. I saw in Star Trek V. You know. The one that really, really sucked, just like a supermassive black hole but nowhere near as cool. 

seeburg220
seeburg220

Can someone dumb this down a bit for me ?  In terms of Star Trek, perhaps ?  

The picture above looks like a Tholian Web.  

So this is anti-matter, and if Kirk is busy cutting a slice in his quarters with Yeoman Janice;  Spock is in the rec room playing that stupid autoharp with Uhura singing; Chekov and Scotty are hammered, because that's what Russians and Scotsmen do, right; and Sulu is, well he's gay, so he's hiding in the shuttlecraft - then the Enterprise is pretty much doomed if it goes barreling towards it on auto pilot, warp factor 8.   Is that the gist of it ?

badcyclist
badcyclist like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Didn't all of this happen quite some time ago?  We are what-- 50,000 light years from the center of the galaxy?  So I assume that it isn't happening now-- we are just seeing it now.

BigBrotherOlé-Biscuitbarrel
BigBrotherOlé-Biscuitbarrel

correct, we are watching an event delayed by the amount of time the light took to reach this point.  when this event was actually occuring, humans were still attempting to figure out language skills and competing with Neanderthal for resources.  The more advanced of us might have figured out fire.

cpc65
cpc65

Don't forget the extreme gravity also distorts time around the event horizon of the black hole itself.


iPhonePhixer
iPhonePhixer

I think its amazing the tidal friction is causing the difference in speed from the front to the rear is 360 miles per second.  The is intense.  I bet that looks awesome in a super slow motion camera.  I remember SML-9 broke apart, due to Jupiters' effect.  OMG Smartphone Solutions.  I hope my son Mateo reads about this kind of stuff.  

SteveShelley
SteveShelley

Is there a coriolis effect ? is it consistant thru out the universe?

El_Dudio
El_Dudio

Good stuff, hopefully that doesnt happen to us anytime soon

william.mchale
william.mchale

@El_Dudio Well there is essentially zero risk of the Earth falling into the Black hole in the center of the Galaxy (There are actually much higher odds that we will be ejected from the Galaxy entirely).  There is of course a small chance that a stellar sized black hole could pass through our solar system, but in all probability there are 1000 disasters far more likely to kill us before that happens.

TimeTunnel
TimeTunnel

A stellar sized black hole passing through our solar system = first six pages of A Heartbeat from Tomorrow. Which came first: the story or your comment?

TimeTunnel
TimeTunnel

William – I agree that the notion of a stellar black hole passing through the solar system is not new – I just am not aware of where that scenario has been written up as an integral part of a story/novel. The title for this article (A Front Row Seat to A Black Hole In Action) could easily describe the first six pages of an eBook written last summer. Incidentally, about 80% into “A Heartbeat from Tomorrow”, Isaac Asimov is specifically given recognition for his scientific thinking and futuristic ideas.

william.mchale
william.mchale

@TimeTunnel What does that have to do with anything?  The notion that a solar sized black hole could pass through our solar system is hardly a new one.  Indeed, the idea that stars of any type could cause problems for Earth with a close encounter have been around for decades (if not centuries).  One of Isaac Asimov's last novels was called Nemesis based off an hypothesis that the Sun might have a dim red dwarf companion that might be responsible for periodic mass extinctions.

justsaying79
justsaying79

"The difference in speed between front and rear is about 360 miles per second"

The speed of light is 186,300 miles per second....

ThinkBeer
ThinkBeer

@justsaying79 I thought it was closer to 186,281.6 miles per second.... sorry, couldn't resist... but man, point 6, or point 7, give or take a few miles per second difference, that's pretty awesome. And then to think that no matter how fast a source of light is moving, the light it emits always travels at that rate (though the wavelengths will differ to the relative observer)... makes for some entertaining nights drinking beer and staring into a fire in a fire place. sigh.


ebd1974
ebd1974

And your point is...?