Swan song of a cloud approaching the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole

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(ORDO NEWS) — Two decades of observations by the W.M. Keck Observatory at Maunakea in Hawaii have shown that the strange cloud is being torn apart as it accelerates towards the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers have been tracking the evolution of this dusty gas filament, dubbed X7, since 2002.

High-angle, near-infrared images taken with the Keck Observatory’s powerful adaptive optics show that X7 has become so elongated that it is now 3,000 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (or 3,000 astronomical units).

Swan song of a cloud approaching the Milky Ways supermassive black hole 2
An image taken in the summer of 2021 shows gas and dust structures at the galactic center, including objects G and X7

X7 has a mass of about 50 Earths and is on an orbit around our galaxy’s black hole called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*) that will take 170 years.

“We hypothesize that the strong tidal forces generated by the galactic black hole will eventually tear X7 apart before it has completed even one orbit,” said co-author Mark Morris, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California.

Based on its trajectory, the team believes that X7 will approach Sgr A* around 2036 and dissipate completely shortly thereafter.

The gas and dust that make up X7 will eventually be attracted to Sgr A* and possibly set off fireworks later as they heat up and spiral into the black hole.

X7 has the same observational properties as other strange dusty objects orbiting Sgr A* called G-objects that look like gas but behave like stars.

However, the shape and velocity structure of the X7 has changed more significantly compared to the G-objects. The elongated gas-dust thread moves quickly, at speeds up to 490 miles per second.

Due to the extremely large mass of a black hole, everything in its vicinity moves much faster than we usually see elsewhere in our galaxy.

While the origin of the X7 is still a mystery that has yet to be uncovered and confirmed, the research team has some clues as to its possible formation.

“One possibility is that the gas and dust of X7 were ejected at the time of the merger of two stars,” Ciurlo says.

“In this process, the merged star is hidden inside a shell of dust and gas, which may fit the description of G-objects. And the ejected gas may have given rise to objects like X7.”

The research team will continue to monitor X7’s dramatic changes with the Keck Observatory as the black hole’s gravity pulls it apart.


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