A giant gas cloud is set to spiral into the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s core in the next few months, and scientists should get a great view of the dramatic celestial action.
NASA’s Swift satellite will have a front-row seat for the enormous gas cloud collision, and astronomers can barely contain their excitement.
"Everyone wants to see the event happening because it’s so rare," Nathalie Degenaar, of the University of Michigan, said in a statement.
In 2003, scientists discovered what seemed to be a cloud of gas, termed G2, which should collide in March or thereabouts with the supermassive black hole that lurks at the heart of the Milky Way. The interaction will reveal much about this black hole, which is known as Sagittarius A* (or Sag A* for short).
Although scientists have observed signs of such feeding in other galaxies, it’s rare to see these events so close to home.
With their enormous gravitational pull, the centers of black holes trap even light, making them difficult to see. But the edges of these odd objects light up up when they feed, emitting energy that can reveal details about black-hole dynamics.
Sag A* is dim even for a class of object known to be challenging to observe —almost 4,000 times fainter than astronomers expect it to be. Every 5 to 10 days, the hungry black hole gobbles down a bit of gas or dust that creates an X-ray flare that telescopes like Swift can capture.
For the last eight years, Degenaar and her team have used Swift to observe the galactic center for 17 minutes a day. On the whole, it’s been fairly quiet.
"Our supermassive black hole is laying low," Degenaar told reporters earlier this month. "It’s not displaying a lot of action at all."
That may well change when G2 crashes into Sag A, since the interaction could create an X-ray flare brighter than those generated by smaller objects. Degenaar’s team, still monitoring Sag A every day, will be in a perfect position to observe the changes, and other instruments will try to get a good look as well.
"Observatories all over the world, space- and ground-based, are ready for this," Degenaar said.
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