Sci/Tech

Black hole to fill astronomical appetite

In the next few years, a rare sequence of events could set the stage for a black hole in the Milky Way to chow down on a massive cloud of cosmic gas. 

A black hole doesn’t necessarily complain when it goes a few days without a decent meal, but scientists aren’t too happy when the massive gravitational pits go hungry. Maternal concerns aside, researchers often need a cosmic event to witness the properties and effects of a black hole. By 2013, the scientific community should have a feast of new data in their own galactic back yard.

Meet Sagittarius A*, an enormous black hole thought to hang around in the middle of our Milky Way galaxy. With about 4.3 million times the mass of the sun, Sagittarius is still difficult to pin down among the stars, since its location is derived from intense radio emissions, reports Space.com. As matter starts getting sucked into the black hole’s vortex, it heats up and lets off astonishing levels of light, which also includes radio waves. Scientists can then better measure and observe the presumed black hole.

The problem with Sagittarius is that it’s probably skipped a few too many meals. Researchers have a hard time with the celestial problem child, since it only lets off radio waves and the occasional X-ray or infrared flare. This surprisingly quiet nature leads scientists to believe that Sagittarius hasn’t had much to eat, and thus they can’t figure out much about it. Unfortunately, force feeding a black hole isn’t only a bad idea, it’s not very plausible.

"It is by no means easy to feed a black hole – if you were to throw something into its direction and you miss it a bit, the object would just swing by the black hole, like a spacecraft does when it passes a planet," Stefan Gillessen, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, told Space.com. "The object can only fall in if you point very precisely towards the black hole and hit it, or if during the swing-by the object loses energy and decelerates such that it falls in."

Even so, the universe appears to be sending Sagittarius a big order of take-out. Since 2002, the Very Large Telescope has had its eye on a massive gas cloud making a bee-line toward the black hole. Reaching up to 5.2 million mph, the cloud emits five times more light than the sun. However, it appears increasingly disrupted the closer it gets to Sagittarius’s accretion zone, the point of no return where matter begins spiraling into darkness.

"We can actually watch how this cloud gets disrupted – we see the changes in front of our eyes within the few years we have observed the cloud," Gillessen told Space.com. "The event will become much more dramatic in the near future ... the cloud now accelerates quickly towards the massive black hole."

If this continues as predicted, the cloud should hit Sagittarius in 2012 or 2013, with a celebration of X-rays and radiation to follow. For most of us, this won’t exactly look like the Fourth of July (unless you put an X-ray satellite on your Christmas list) but the black hole might eventually show up in all wavelengths. Until then, keep an eye out for a group people dancing a jig in white lab coats, and maybe good old Saggy finally got a decent meal.

By mail.com Editor Will Cade

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