Giant Blob of Gas Sucked Into the Milky Way's Black Hole at 30% the Speed of Light

Wednesday, 31 October 2018 - 1:29PM
Astronomy
Space
Black Holes
Wednesday, 31 October 2018 - 1:29PM
Giant Blob of Gas Sucked Into the Milky Way's Black Hole at 30% the Speed of Light
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Composite: adapted from ESO/Gravity Consortium/L. Calçada + Pixabay
Back in September, a team of astronomers spotted an Earth-sized chunk of matter falling into a black hole at 30% the speed of light. That black hole sat at the center of the galaxy PG211+143, which is roughly a billion light-years from Earth. Now, a team of scientists associated with the European Southern Observatory have recorded something similar, but much closer to home: a series of gas blobs have been observed being sucked into Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and they've been clocked at the same mind-blowing speed.

In addition, they've identified a new piece of black hole anatomy—the ISCO, or "innermost stable circular orbit," which is an area just beyond the event horizon. According Oxford University's Josephine Peters, these recent observations are a breakthrough in the ongoing study of black holes: "Astronomers have observed material as close as you can get to a black hole without being consumed by it," Peters told Business Insider. "Even though [Sagittarius A*] is our closest supermassive black hole, it is still incredibly mysterious. This marks the beginning of understanding more about our nearby astronomical monster."

The observations, made possible by the GRAVITY instrument used by the Very Large Telescope array in Chile, gave scientists a "mind-boggling" look at gas travelling at roughly 201 million miles per hour around the periphery of Sagittarius A*. According to Peters: "As a cloud of gas gets closer to the black hole, they speed up and heat up. It glows brighter the faster and hotter it gets. Eventually the gas cloud gets close enough that the pull of the black hole stretches it into a thin arc." Though the team didn't actually capture photographs of the process, they were able to use the data they collected to create a virtual simulation of the gas swirling around the black hole.

via Gfycat

The funniest part of all this? Scientists still can't technically prove the existence of black holes. According to astrophysicist Misty Bentz: "One might argue that you can never prove the existence of an invisible object like a black hole. But this new study with GRAVITY confirms that a compact object with a mass of 4 million suns is still the only way to explain all the observations."
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