The super massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, known as Sagittarius A star (Sgr A*), is anxiously reeling in its next, big meal — a large cloud of hydrogen and helium three times more massive than the Earth.
The ill-fated cloud, composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, is in an elliptical orbit, accelerating toward Sgr A* and traveling at a present speed of more than 8 million km/hr (5 million mi/hr).
Since the center of the galaxy is obscured by dense concentrations of dust that absorb and scatter light in the visible range, the cloud can only be seen in the infrared spectrum, where ultraviolet radiation from surrounding stars is causing it to glow.
As the intense gravitation from the black hole — 4 million times more massive than our Sun — continues to pull the cloud inward, the cloud will begin to stretch out along its orbit, and can already be seen breaking up at its outer edges. As the cloud gets hotter, it is also expected to begin emitting x-rays.
The cloud was discovered by a team of scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany using instruments attached to the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
“The next two years will be very interesting and should provide us with extremely valuable information on the behaviour of matter around such remarkable massive objects,” says team leader, Reinhard Genzel.