Feeds

Super black hole about to scoff speeding space dinner

Gas cloud barrels toward event horizon ... and oblivion

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

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. ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
PORTAL TO ELSEWHERE scried in small galaxy far, far away
Supermassive black hole dominates titchy star formation
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Edge Research Lab to tackle chilly LOHAN's final test flight
Our US allies to probe potential Vulture 2 servo freeze
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.