12/18/2011 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2011

Black Hole To Devour Huge Gas Cloud Soon (IMAGE, VIDEO)

A huge gas cloud in space is about to meet its end at the hands of a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

According to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), astronomers using telescopes in Chile have observed a helium and hydrogen cloud hurtling toward a black hole 4 million times more massive than our sun.

The cloud will reach the black hole in about a year and a half, at which point it will be torn apart by the hole's gravitational pull.


The gas cloud, which is several times more massive than Earth and is currently moving at a swift 4.9 million miles per hour, will begin to get sucked in when it passes the black hole within a distance of about 25 billion miles. The ESO describes this as "an extremely close encounter with a supermassive black hole in astronomical terms."

From AFP:

This will be the first time ever that scientists will be able to observe in realtime the destruction of such a gas cloud by a supermassive black hole.

"When we look at the black holes in the centers of other galaxies, we see them get bright and then fade, but we never know what is actually happening," Eliot Quataert, a theoretical astrophysicist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity to obtain unique observations and insight into the processes that go on as gas falls into a black hole, heats up and emits light," he added. "It's a neat window onto a black hole that's actually capturing gas as it spirals in."

On their website, NASA explains black holes:

A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen when a star is dying.

According to a video from the European Southern Observatory, astronomers spent more than 15 years observing this area of the Milky Way. Because black holes don't emit light and are thus essentially inivisble, scientists were able to determine the location of and other information about the black hole by observing the orbits of nearly 30 surrounding stars.

"The most important result of our research is that we have now empirical evidence for the existence of a massive black hole in the center of our Milky Way," Dr. Stefan Gillessen, the lead author of the study, said in the video.

The study will appear in the Jan. 5 edition of the journal Nature.

This view shows a simulation of how a gas cloud that has been observed approaching the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy may break apart over the next few years ... The remains of the gas cloud are shown in red and yellow, with the cloud's orbit marked in red. The stars orbiting the black hole are also shown along with blue lines marking their orbits. This view simulates the expected positions of the stars and gas cloud in the year 2021. (ESO)


This animation shows not only the true motions of many stars orbiting the central black hole in the Milky Way but also the expected behaviour of a cloud of gas that is falling rapidly towards the black hole.

ESO/MPE/M. Schartmann/L. Calçada

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