We’re About to Watch As a Supermassive Black Hole Tries to Gobble a Gas Cloud

A huge cloud of dust is on a collision course with the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way

The supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* is at the center of the Milky Way. NASA/CXC/MIT/Frederick K. Baganoff et al.

Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole, lives at the center of the Milky Way, and since 2011, astronomers have been waiting to see it swallow up a gas cloud, a parcel of debris three times as massive as the Earth. When astronomers first found the cloud, it was already being stretched and squashed as it succumbed to the black hole's mighty gravitational pull. Since then, says Nature, a team of researchers headed by Stefan Gillensen have been tracking the cloud (known as G2) as it flies 5 million miles per hour toward its potential death—an interaction which should play out in the next month or so.

You can't get closer seats than this to a (totally uneven) bout between a supermassive black hole and its meal.

"It's a bit like the moment before a penalty shot in soccer," said Gillessen to Wired's Adam Mann. According to Mann,

The gas cloud currently headed for the central black hole could either continue on its current orbit and slingshot around the black hole or it could run into surrounding gas and dust, which will make it lose speed and start sliding down toward the black hole. The first scenario could give scientists insight into the evolution of galaxies and better understand the history of our Milky Way's own black hole. In the second case, they might get to watch the black hole consume a sizable dinner.

Either way, we're in for a show.

The full fight, though, says Ron Cowen for the New York Times, could take a few rounds. In the next few weeks, the cloud G2 will make its closest pass to Sagittarius A*. “But most of the potential fireworks are at least a year away, perhaps decades. That is how long it may take material torn from G2 to spiral inward through the black hole’s feeding disk, coming 100 times closer to the hole than it is now. At that location, gas becomes hot enough to radiate at high intensity before it is swallowed.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.