Milky Way Black Hole
December 15, 2011 by staff
Milky Way Black Hole, The supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way – our galaxy – is normally a ‘sleeping giant’. But it’s set to get a rude awakening. A gas cloud several times the size of Earth is hurtling into it at five million miles an hour.
Astronomers hope that the huge radiation burst released when the two collide will provide a rare glimpse of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy – and help us understand why it’s normally so quiet.
Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have discovered the doomed cloud to. It will be the first time such an impact with a supermassive black hole has been observed.
The results will be published in the journal Nature.
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 at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physicsy, has discovered a unique new object fast approaching the black hole.
‘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,’ explains Stefan Gillessen, the lead author of the paper.
The gas cloud will pass at a distance of only about 40 billion kilometers from the event horizon of the black hole, a distance of about 36 light-hours – very close, when it’s an encounter with an object as powerful and destructive as a supermassive black hole.
As it approaches its doom, the cloud is glowing under the strong ultraviolet radiation from the hot stars around it in the crowded heart of the Milky Way.
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 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 already 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 over 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.
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