Scientists who spotted a giant gas blob orbiting the black hole at the center of the Milky Way say they'll get a first-ever close-up view of matter falling into a supermassive black hole.
For the first time, astronomers are poised to get a close look at a supermassive black hole making a meal of in-falling gas.
The black hole in question lurks in the center of the Milky Way. A vast blob of gas is orbiting the black hole, known astronomically as Sagittarius A*. And it appears to be a swan-song orbit.
At its closest approach in 2013, the gradually stretching blob will have been shredded into fragments by the black hole's gravity. The fragments are expected to swing to within 1.5 light-days of the black hole's event horizon – the point of no return for in-falling matter.
That's about 260 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The team discovering the blob calculates that some of the gas fragments will be flung into new orbits around Sagittarius A*. But the team says some of that gas may be drawn in ever-tightening circles around the black hole until it crosses the event horizon and vanishes in a burst of radiation.
IN PICTURES: The Milky Way
"What a unique opportunity!" says an enthused Stefan Gillessen, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. Dr. Gillessen led the team reporting the results in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
Researchers observing other galaxies millions of light-years away claim to have seen stars being disrupted by black holes, Gillessen writes in an email exchange. But the level of detail in the data hasn't been high enough to be thoroughly convincing.
"Here, we can predict that an accretion event will happen, [and] at a very close distance of 25,000 light years," he says. "The mass being fed towards the black hole is small, but we can watch it in exquisite detail."