Most Detailed Look Yet at a Gas Cloud Surviving Close Encounter with a Supermassive Black Hole

Thursday, 26 March 2015 - 3:06PM
Astrophysics
Black Holes
Thursday, 26 March 2015 - 3:06PM
Most Detailed Look Yet at a Gas Cloud Surviving Close Encounter with a Supermassive Black Hole
In May of last year, a dusty gas cloud made its closest approach to the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, and researchers observing the phenomenon naturally assumed that it would be torn apart. Instead, it emerged from the encounter intact, leaving scientists flabbergasted. Now, the newest and most detailed telescope image demonstrates that the cloud is, in fact, relatively unharmed:

Most Detailed Image Yet of a Gas Cloud Surviving a Close Encounter with a Supermassive Black Hole
A composite of G2 images taken at various times; the September 2014 image is the most recent and confirms the team's original findings.

ESO



Astronomers have been predicting the gas cloud's trajectory for the last eight years, culminating in its close approach last spring. Judging from their observations of its density, which was thought to be very low, the researchers assumed the tidal forces from the supermassive black hole would stretch and pull the gas cloud until it was utterly torn apart and partially consumed. This scenario would have been consistent with previous observations, as astronomers recently discovered the remnants of a star that had been destroyed by the black hole after an approach from a comparable distance. 

Instead, the researchers were shocked to observe that the gas cloud not only wasn't destroyed, but didn't seem to be significantly stretched or harmed in any way. Co-author of the paper Monica Valencia-S. said in an ESO statement: "It was amazing to see that the glow from the dusty cloud stayed compact before and after the close approach to the black hole."

The latest image, marked as "September 2014" in the annotated composite above, confirmed these initial findings, leading the researchers to believe that the object must not be as dense as they previously thought.

"We looked at all the recent data and in particular the period in 2014 when the closest approach to the black hole took place," said lead author Andreas Eckhart. "We cannot confirm any significant stretching of the source. It certainly does not behave like a coreless dust cloud. We think it must be a dust-shrouded young star."
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