What Happens When a Black Hole Eats?

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Astronomers hope to watch as the black hole at the center of our Milky Way rips apart a mysterious cloud composed primarily of hydrogen gas sometime around July 2013. The image shows a computer simulation predicting how the cloud changes over time.
  • P. Anninos
  • Astronomers hope to watch as the black hole at the center of our Milky Way rips apart a mysterious cloud composed primarily of hydrogen gas sometime around July 2013. The image shows a computer simulation predicting how the cloud changes over time.


UA astronomy professor Feryal Ozel, who studies neutron stars and black holes, is in the midst of watching an enormous hydrogen cloud slide down the throat of a massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Shelley Littin of the University Communications team tells us the plan:


The cloud is moving fast enough through space that Ozel and her colleagues predict it will create a shockwave in front of it when it approaches the black hole, like the supersonic boom heard when an airplane breaks the sound barrier, Ozel said. The shockwave should emit radiation observable through radio telescopes.

“Shortly after that we expect that the cloud is going to be basically wrenched apart,” Ozel said.

Astronomers can infer that the intense gravity of black holes absorbs material from objects that come too near, Ozel said, but normally aren’t able to see it happen in real time. The collision of the gas cloud with the black hole at the center of our own galaxy will give scientists a chance to learn about the environment of a black hole.

“It’s the first time we will be able to see a black hole having lunch,” Ozel said.

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