A large cloud of gas near the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy is heated and ripped apart in this artist's concept. The cloud will pass close to the black hole over the next few months, and will be destroyed by the black hole's gravity, creating flares of X-rays. The black hole will ingest some of the gas. The illustration also shows the orbits of stars that circle close to the black hole. [ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann]
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The black hole at the center of the Milky Way may be getting ready for a snack. A cloud of gas and dust is speeding that way, and over the next year or so the black hole will rip it apart. Some of the material will fall into the black hole, causing it to flare brightly.
The black hole is about four million times as massive as the Sun. It’s encircled by a disk of gas that’s spiraling into the black hole. As the gas gets closer, it gets hotter. There’s not much gas in the disk, though, so right now it’s pretty quiet -- in fact, the Milky Way’s black hole is one of the quietest in the heart of any galaxy.
But an international team of astronomers says that’s about to change. The astronomers have been watching the cloud for a decade. It’s been gaining speed and getting hotter. Over the next year, it’ll pass quite close to the black hole. It’ll be pulled apart by the black hole’s gravity, and by interactions with other material close to the black hole. Those interactions will heat the cloud to millions of degrees, so it’ll shine brightly.
The remnants of the cloud will loop around the black hole, and some of its gas and dust will enter the disk that encircles the black hole. Eventually, much of it will fall into the black hole itself, causing the disk to flare up.
Astronomers will keep a close eye on the black hole to see what happens. Their observations will reveal new details about how a black hole snacks on the material around it.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
For more information about the Milky Way's central black hole, visit our Black Hole Encyclopedia.