ESO / MPE
This view shows a simulation of how a gas cloud that has been observed approaching the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy may break apart over the next few years. The cloud is expected to break up in 2013. This view simulates the expected positions of the stars and gas cloud in 2021.
By
updated 12/14/2011 4:47:52 PM ET 2011-12-14T21:47:52

The giant black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy will soon rip apart a vast cloud of gas in a cosmic feast that could reveal just how supermassive black holes gobble their meals, scientists say.

The black hole, which contains about 4.3 million times the mass of the sun, is thought to lurk at the heart of the Milky Way. Scientists have named the monster black hole Sagittarius A* and pinpointed its location based on clues from intense radio emissions — matter near a black hole can release extraordinary amounts of light, including radio waves, as it gets super-heated rushing toward the point of no return.

Aside from radio waves and some modest X-ray or infrared flares, Sagittarius A* is surprisingly faint, suggesting that activity around it currently is very low, researchers said. This limits what investigators can deduce about its properties and behavior, as well as those of the other supermassive black holes thought to dwell in the cores of virtually all large galaxies.

"It is by no means easy to feed a black hole — if you were to throw something into its direction and you miss it a bit, the object would just swing by the black hole, like a spacecraft does when it passes a planet," study lead author Stefan Gillessen, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, told Space.com. "The object can only fall in if you point very precisely towards the black hole and hit it, or if during the swing-by the object loses energy and decelerates such that it falls in."

Black hole glutton
However, since 2002, astronomers gazing through the Very Large Telescope have monitored a dusty gas cloud three times the mass of Earth zip at up to more than 5.2 million mph (8.4 million kph) in a straight line toward Sagittarius A*, putting out five times as much light as the sun as it speeds along. The cloud has now grown increasingly disrupted as it moves closer toward the black hole's accretion zone — the region where matter begins its death spiral into the black hole.

ESO / MPE
These images taken over the last decade using the NACO instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope show the motion of a cloud of gas that is falling toward the supermassive black hole at the center of Milky Way. It's the first time the approach of such a doomed cloud to a huge black hole has been observed and is expected to break up in 2013.

"We can actually watch how this cloud gets disrupted — we see the changes in front of our eyes within the few years we have observed the cloud," Gillessen said. "The event will become much more dramatic in the near future ... the cloud now accelerates quickly towards the massive black hole."

The researchers suggest that monitoring how this cloud behaves in the next few years should help shed light on a number of mysteries surrounding the Milky Way's central black hole, such as its feeding processes.

"We can hope to understand how material is distributed around the black hole and thus test theoretical pictures of the emission of Sagittarius A*, which results from the material in the black hole's surroundings," Gillessen said.

Black hole witness
The cloud should reach the black hole in 2012 or 2013. They predict that as the cloud continues to fall into the black hole, its X-ray emissions should become substantially brighter, and it should spit out a giant radiation flare in a few years.

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"Probably the first telescopes to notice the violence of the event will be X-ray satellites, but later Sagittarius A* might show up in all wavelengths," Gillessen said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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