Flaring Up

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Flaring Up
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A likely gas cloud is getting stretched out and pulled apart by the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomers have been watching it for a couple of decades. And it’s gotten a lot longer and thinner over that time. That could mean it’s doomed.

The black hole is called Sagittarius A-star. It’s in the constellation Sagittarius, which is in the southeast at nightfall. Its brightest stars form the outline of a teapot. The black hole is immersed in the “steam” above the spout of the teapot.

Sagittarius A-star is more than four million times the mass of the Sun. Its gravity pulls in anything that gets too close. As the material falls toward the black hole, it’s heated to millions of degrees, so it emits copious amounts of X-rays. Big bursts of X-rays flare up about once a day as the black hole swallows clumps of material.

One object that may meet that fate is called X7 — a cloud that astronomers have been watching for 20 years. It’s about 50 times as massive as Earth.

Today, it’s more than twice as long as when astronomers first saw it. It’s moving toward the black hole, and will pass closest in 2036. It’ll be stretched out even more, forming long strands and small clumps. Some of those clumps may be pulled into the black hole — ending with big bursts of X-rays just before they disappear forever.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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