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Cloud suicide will wake black hole sleeping giant

December 19, 2011 – A suicidal gas cloud is heading towards the galaxy’s supermassive black hole, which will probably swallow the cloud, generating enormous flares of radiation that could help explain why the black hole is normally so placid. The doomed cloud was a surprise to astronomers. “We have been looking at the galactic centre for 20 years, but mainly to observe the motion of stars,” says Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Germany.

Genzel’s colleague Stefan Gillessen spotted the cloud in images from the Very Large Telescope array in Chile, taken in March this year. It is an unusually dense cloud, not much bigger than our solar system and carrying about three times the mass of Earth. The team realised that the cloud also appears in earlier images, giving them a sequence that reveals its path. It is moving at almost 2500 kilometres per second towards our galaxy’s black hole, Sagittarius A.

That should send shockwaves through the cloud to heat it to several million degrees, and according to the group’s simulations the gaseous collision will shred the cloud into filaments. This turmoil may mean that much of the cloud ends up swirling right down into the black hole. “By dumping more material in there, the cloud could drive the system into a higher efficiency regime,” says Ginzel. There may be one huge flare of radiation or several over the coming decades. There’s no danger of the active black hole harming Earth. And though sadly not visible to the naked eye, this radiation will give astronomers clues as to why our black hole is normally so different from quasars.

…(NewScientist)

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December 19, 2011 - Posted by | Space | , , , ,

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