Feeds

Super black hole about to scoff speeding space dinner

Gas cloud barrels toward event horizon ... and oblivion

High performance access to file storage

Star-gazing boffins using the European Southern Observatory's aptly-named Very Large Telescope have discovered that supermassive black hole Sagittarius A is about to chow down on a huge gas cloud.

Simulation of gas cloud after close approach to the black hole

Simulation of gas cloud after close approach to the black hole. Credit: ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann

The cloud, which is several times the size of Earth, is accelerating fast towards the maw of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way - the first time that a supermassive black hole's gaseous dinner has been observed.

The space researchers have been staring skywards for 20 years to monitor the movement of stars around the black hole and have noticed that in the last seven, the cloud's speed has almost doubled to eight million kilometres per hour as the black hole hoovers it up.

“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 of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the lead author of the paper.

The cloud is on course in its elongated orbit to pass the event horizon of the black hole at a distance of around 40bn km, or 36 light-hours, which is an extremely close encounter in astronomical terms.

At the moment, the density of the gas cloud is much higher than the hotter gases around the black hole. But as it gets closer, external pressure will compress the cloud while the huge gravitational pull will suck it in, stretching the cloud along its orbit.

The edges of the gas cloud, which is cooler than the surrounding stars and made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, are already starting to fray from the strain of its proximity to the black hole, and it is expected to disintegrate entirely over the next few years.

The cloud will also start to heat up as it gets closer to the event horizon, causing it to give off X-rays.

At the moment, there's not much for the supermassive black hole to 'eat', so the cloud is likely to provide it with fuel for the next few years.

The full research on Sagittarius A's dinner will be published in Nature on January 5. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Fancy joining Reg hack on quid-a-day challenge?
Recruiting now for charity starvation diet
Red-faced LOHAN team 'fesses up in blown SPEARS fuse fiasco
Standing in the corner, big pointy 'D' hats
KILLER SPONGES menacing California coastline
Surfers are safe, crustaceans less so
Opportunity selfie: Martian winds have given the spunky ol' rover a spring cleaning
Power levels up 70 per cent as the rover keeps on truckin'
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
Elon Musk's LEAKY THRUSTER gas stalls Space Station supply run
Helium seeps from Falcon 9 first stage, delays new legs for NASA robonaut
Top Secret US payload launched into space successfully
Clandestine NRO spacecraft sets off on its unknown mission
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.