Scientists are eagerly watching with anticipation as a gas cloud creeps closer to the supermassive black hole present in the center of the Milky Way, giving them a rare opportunity to observe this awesome event in action.
Black holes are areas in space where gravity is so strong that even light can’t escape; they’re therefore not visible to our eyes. They are formed when the center of a star collapses, causing a supernova. Black holes can be as small as just one atom, or as huge as the one in the center of our galaxy, which is a supermassive black hole. This black hole, called Sagittarius A, or SgrA*, has a mass of approximately 4 million suns.
Although scientists know that gas clouds are regularly engulfed by black holes, it’s not often that astronomers get to record this in action. It’s hoped that this may provide insight into how supermassive black holes achieve such huge masses. Daryl Haggard, a postdoctoral fellow from Northwestern University, has been collecting data on the encounter between Sagittarius A and the gas cloud G2 using the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which is a space telescope, and the Very Large Array which is an observatory in New Mexico, USA.
This exciting event may bestow scientists with some novel information on the growth of these intriguing entities. “Do they grow rapidly when they are young, like our kids do, or do they grow in fits and starts, whenever fuel becomes available? In watching the encounter between SgrA* and G2 we may catch a massive black hole in the act of snatching its next meal,” said Haggard in a press release.