Giant gas cloud 'resembles spaghetti' as it plunges toward a black hole
A giant gas cloud is on a suicide mission to the black hole at the center of our galaxy. As the cloud spirals into oblivion, the black hole's extreme gravity is stretching it thinner and thinner.
We've all heard about black holes, the giant, galactic vacuum cleaners that suck in anything nearby. That's the science fiction version, anyway, and it's reasonably close to reality.Skip to next paragraph
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So what happens when you get sucked in? We're about to find out.
A giant cloud of gas is rocketing toward death, spiraling around our galaxy's black hole like water down a drain, but at an unbelievably giant scale.
"As the cloud plunges into a black hole, you're getting a beautiful opportunity to sample the environment near a black hole," says Dale Frail, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico, which was made famous in the movie "Contact." "These things happen once in a lifetime."
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The gas cloud, now named "G2," isn't getting sucked in all at once. The front end – the end closest to the black hole – is being pulled many times faster than the back end, with the result that G2 is getting stretched thinner and thinner, like caramel on a hot day.
"The gas at the head of the cloud is now stretched over more than 160 billion kilometres around the closest point of the orbit to the black hole," wrote Stefan Gillessen, whose team discovered G2, in a statement released Wednesday.
His team's measurements, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, show that G2 has gone from an egg-shaped blob in 2004 to a long ribbon of gas today, as can be seen above. Dr. Gillessen, who is based at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, describes it this way: "Like an unfortunate astronaut in a science fiction film, we see that the cloud is now being stretched so much that it resembles spaghetti."
Eventually, G2 will be stretched too far, and snap. The surviving pieces will be "eaten" by the black hole, and Gillessen's team – along with hundreds of other astronomers around the world – will be watching to see exactly how it happens.
"When you fall into a black hole, the effects of gravity are so strong that they tear the atoms apart as they fall in. If you or I fall into the Grand Canyon, we'd just go splat. But if you fall into a black hole, you actually experience all kinds of interesting physical effects, including tidal forces. Atoms are getting ripped apart, but as they're ripped apart, they emit radiation," says Dr. Frail, who is the assistant director of the Very Large Array (VLA) and the Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA). "Material falls into the gravitational potential well and basically screams, 'Help, help, I'm being torn apart.' "
G2 hasn't started to scream yet, but Frail's radio telescopes are listening hard for those radiation emissions to "turn on."
"We'll be able to map it out in detail, when it turns on as a radio source," he says. The VLBA can resolve smaller objects than optical telescopes can – and believe it or not, even a gas ribbon billions of kilometers long is small when it's as far away as the center of the galaxy.