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.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.