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Almost snack time for our galaxy’s supermassive black hole

Telescopes around the world are turning to our galaxy’s center, to watch our Milky Way’s supermassive black hole consume a gas cloud.

Astronomers have been watching and waiting since 2011 to see what will happen when an encroaching cloud of gas sweeps near the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. It was in 2011 that astronomers in Germany announced the cloud’s discovery and observed that it was accelerating fast towards our galaxy’s center. In April 2013, data showed that part of the gas cloud had already passed closest to the black hole and that the cloud was undergoing what astronomers sometimes call spaghettification – or the noodle effect. That is, they could see that the cloud was being stretched or elongated as it passed the hole, due to the hole’s powerful gravity. Now astronomers are saying they expect the main encounter to happen soon! When it does, they hope they can figure out what’s going on in the black hole’s immediate vicinity. They might even see some gas disappear down the hole.

Astronomers have been wondering for decades why the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy is so quiet. Now they will have a chance to learn what happens when the hole actually swallows something, in this case a cloud of gas with several times the mass of Earth. The gas cloud might slingshot around the hole, or it might be pulled in. We’ll know … soon.

Here’s some background: A gas cloud is sweeping past the Milky Way’s central black hole

Some recent quotes and more from scientists, from Wired: Scientists may get best view yet of a black hole in action

Deborah Byrd