The supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy hasn’t been doing much. Similar black holes in far-off regions of the cosmos seem to be busy eating surrounding masses and spewing out energy, while ours produces the occasional, meager x-ray flare.
But our supermassive black hole may soon see some action. A gas cloud is approaching, and much as we might watch prey nearing a predator in a nature documentary, astronomers are straining their telescopes to the pending black-hole attack.
The black hole may eat the cloud, and the reactions that may follow are hard to predict. The phenomenon is still little-understood, since it has never been observed at such close range.
Of course, “close” is a relative term. This is all happening some 26,000 light years away, meaning what we are now observing happened 26,000 years ago. With our current technology, it may still be difficult to discern with much clarity what exactly is going on, but it’s the best observation opportunity we’ve had yet.
Alternatively, the cloud may get flung away and remain more or less intact. If it is flung away, it may hit one of the other, smaller black holes in the region. Either way, some radiation may be produced. What makes it exciting is that astronomers aren’t really sure what will happen. And whatever does happen could provide new insights into how black holes and other related cosmic entities work.
The cloud has already started to feel the pull of the black hole, being torn and stretched into a “spaghetti configuration,” said astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, in a video posted on Space.com.
The gas cloud, named G2, has a mass more than three times that of Earth. It may also be hiding other celestial entities—a faint star, for example—in its depths. The supermassive black hole, named Sagittarius A* (or Sag A*), has a mass of about 4 million suns. The sun has a mass more than 330,000 times greater than that of Earth.
The precise date or time of the pending interaction cannot be predicted as it can with some other celestial phenomena. Astronomers are keeping a vigilant watch, waiting for the next clue to help them understand how black holes work.