BERKELY, Calif., Dec. 15 (UPI) — U.S. astronomers say they’ll be watching as a gas cloud approaching the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way breaks apart in the coming years.
This is the first time the approach of such a cloud to a supermassive black hole has been observed, and astronomers expect it to break up completely during 2013, a release from the University of California, Berkeley, said Wednesday.
The Milky Way’s black hole is the only one close enough to Earth for astronomers to study in detail, so the expected violent encounter is a unique opportunity to observe what until now has only been theorized, they said — how a black hole gulps gas, dust and stars as it grows ever bigger.
“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 UC Berkeley astrophysicist said.
“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 said. “It’s a neat window onto a black hole that’s actually capturing gas as it spirals in.”
By 2013, scientists said, they should see outbursts of X-rays and radio waves as the cloud, composed mostly hydrogen and helium gas, gets hotter and is torn apart.