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G2 survives fly-by of Milky Way’s supermassive black hole

The uncertainty of science: The mysterious object G2, thought by astronomers to be either a cloud or a star, has survived its close fly-by of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, without telling scientists whether it is a cloud or a star.

Not only do astronomers still not know clearly what G2 is, the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole continues to behave in ways that baffle them.

Part of the gas cloud being ripped apart by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way have already swung past the black hole.

Part of a gas cloud, being ripped apart by the super massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, has already swung past the black hole.

“The ionised gas at the head of the cloud is now stretched over more than 150 light-hours (about 160 billion kilometres) at the pericentre of the orbit around the black hole, with the closest approach being about 25 light-hours (or a bit more than 25 billion kilometres)”, explains Stefan Gillessen from MPE, who led the observing team. “The pericentre approach however is not a singular event but rather a process that will be stretching over a period of at least one year.”

The black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), is more than 4 billion times the mass of our Sun, but emits very little energy for its size. (Most super massive black holes emit energy as they swallow the mass around them.) Astronomers are hoping that they will see some action when it eats this cloud sometime next year.

The supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way is about to get a snack.

The supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way is about to get a snack.

Update: The recently launched NuStar telescope in July detected its first flare from the central black hole (which by the way is called Sagittarius A* and is pronounced Sagittarius A-star). If the gas cloud produces any fireworks as it whips past the black hole in the coming year then NuStar should see it.

Astronomers watch as the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way begins to eat a giant gas cloud.

Astronomers watch as the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way begins to eat a giant gas cloud.

The real fireworks will occur next year, when the cloud passes only 25 billion miles from the black hole.