Milky Way black hole to gobble gas cloud

2011-12-15 22:30

Paris - Astronomers have spied a giant gas cloud with several times the mass of Earth accelerating toward the super massive black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy.

The doomed cloud has a rendezvous with oblivion in mid-2013, when it will pass within 40 billion kilometres - a hair's breadth on astronomical scales - of the voracious, matter-sucking void, according to a study to be published in Nature on January 5.

"It is not going to survive the experience," said Stefan Gillessen, a research at the Max-Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics and lead author of the study.

With a mass four million times that of the Sun, the black hole's irresistible gravitational pull will rip the gas cloud into shreds over the next few years, he said.

This will be the first time ever that scientists will be able to observe in real time the destruction of such a gas cloud by a super massive black hole.


Over the last seven years, the speed of the cloud - observed with the European Space Agency's Very Large Telescope in Chile - has doubled to about eight million kilometres per hour.

Far cooler than the surrounding stars, it is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, and has a mass roughly three times that of Earth.

The cloud glows under the strong ultraviolet radiation from the hot stars around it in the Milky Way's crowded centre.

As it approaches the black hole, the gas cloud will heat up and begin to emit X-rays.

"There is currently little material close to the black hole, so the newly-arrived meal will be the dominant fuel for it over the next few years," ESO said in a statement.

Scientists speculate that the cloud formed from the cast-off debris of nearby hot-burning young stars that rapidly lose mass due to strong stellar winds.

"The next two years will be very interesting and should provide us with extremely valuable information on the behaviour of matter around such remarkable massive objects," said Rienhard Genzel, also an astronomer at Max-Planck and head of the team that wrote the study.

The black hole at the centre of the Milky Way - known as Sagittarius A star, or Sgr A* - is by far the closest super massive black hole known.

By definition, a black hole is a region in space-time from which nothing, including light, can escape due to its gravitational force.

  • Ryan - 2011-12-16 13:18

    astronomers are geniuses. I mean to work out that this black hole weighs 4 million times more than the sun, and that this gas cloud is travelling at 8 million kilometers an hour (whew, thats speedy !) when it is billions of kilometers away in the dark of space .. amazing. technology and science, what man has learnt and created .. wow, I have such respect for that

      Karmah - 2011-12-16 21:12

      It is rather facinating isn't it =)

  • chris.kleynhans - 2011-12-17 22:15

    It would be incorrect to claim that it has a 'rendezvous with oblivion in mid-2013' as the rendezvouz must have taken place a long long time ago in our galaxy but far far away.......Little did we know.....

  • Greg - 2011-12-18 15:11

    it freaks me out that this black hole has allready eaten the gas cloud years ago, but is only now that the light from it is reaching us for us to be able to see it. more freaky is that the black hole is now even more bigger than the observations we can see now. it's weird that we are looking at history in the immediate now!!!! weird, very weird and it hurts my head thinking about it.

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