A black hole’s dinner is fast approaching

The Very Large Telescope spots cloud being disrupted by black hole.
By | Published: December 14, 2011 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) have discovered a gas cloud with several times the mass of Earth accelerating toward the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This is the first time that the approach of such a doomed cloud to a supermassive black hole has been observed.

During a 20-year program using ESO telescopes to monitor the movement of stars around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, a team of astronomers led by Reinhard Genzel from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, has discovered a unique new object fast approaching the black hole.

Over the last seven years, the speed of this object has nearly doubled, reaching more than 5 million mph (8 million km/h). It is on an elongated orbit, and in mid-2013, it will pass at a distance of about 25 billion miles (40 billion km) from the event horizon of the black hole, a distance of about 36 light-hours. This is an extremely close encounter with a supermassive black hole in astronomical terms.

This object is much cooler than the surrounding stars — about 535° Fahrenheit (280° Celsius) — and is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. It is a dusty ionized gas cloud with a mass roughly three times that of Earth. The cloud is glowing under the strong ultraviolet radiation from the hot stars around it in the crowded heart of the Milky Way.

The current density of the cloud is much higher than the hot gas surrounding the black hole. But as the cloud gets ever closer to the hungry beast, increasing external pressure will compress the cloud. At the same time, the huge gravitational pull from the black hole, which has a mass four million times that of the Sun, will continue to accelerate the inward motion and stretch the cloud out along its orbit.

“The idea of an astronaut close to a black hole being stretched out to resemble spaghetti is familiar from science fiction. But we can now see this happening for real to the newly discovered cloud. It is not going to survive the experience,” said Stefan Gillessen from MPE.

The cloud’s edges are already starting to shred and disrupt, and it is expected to break up completely over the next few years. The astronomers can see clear signs of increasing disruption of the cloud over the period between 2008 and 2011.

The material is also expected to get much hotter as it nears the black hole in 2013, and it will probably start to give off X-rays. There is currently little material close to the black hole so the newly arrived meal will be the dominant fuel for the black hole during the next few years.

One explanation for the formation of the cloud is that its material may have come from nearby young massive stars that are rapidly losing mass due to strong stellar winds. Such stars literally blow their gas away. Colliding stellar winds from a known double star in orbit around the central black hole may have led to the formation of the cloud.

“The next two years will be very interesting and should provide us with extremely valuable information on the behavior of matter around such remarkable massive objects,” said Genzel.