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.

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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.”

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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.”

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46 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

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 ?

JaxTeller
JaxTeller

Well this is obviously proof of Jesus.

badcyclist
badcyclist

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.

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

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....