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Ripped Apart by a Black


Hole
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7-9 minutos

eso1332 Science Release

VLT watches in real time as gas cloud


makes closest approach to the monster
at the centre of the Milky Way

17 July 2013
New observations from ESOs Very Large
Telescope show for the first time a gas cloud
being ripped apart by the supermassive

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black hole at the centre of the galaxy. The


cloud is now so stretched that its front part
has passed the closest point and is
travelling away from the black hole at more
than 10 million km/h, whilst the tail is still
falling towards it.
In 2011 ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT)
discovered a gas cloud with several times
the mass of the Earth accelerating towards
the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way
(eso1151) [1]. This cloud is now making its
closest approach and new VLT observations
show that it is being grossly stretched by the
black holes extreme gravitational field.
"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. And the closest
approach is only a bit more than 25 billion
kilometres from the black hole itself
barely escaping falling right in," explains
Stefan Gillessen (Max Planck Institute for

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Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany)


who led the observing team [2]. "The cloud
is so stretched that the close approach is not
a single event but rather a process that
extends over a period of at least one year."
As the gas cloud is stretched its light gets
harder to see. But by staring at the region
close to the black hole for more than 20
hours of total exposure time with the
SINFONI instrument on the VLT the
deepest exposure of this region ever with an
integral field spectrometer [3] the team
was able to measure the velocities of
different parts of the cloud as it streaks past
the central black hole [4].
"The most exciting thing we now see in the
new observations is the head of the cloud
coming back towards us at more than 10
million km/h along the orbit about 1% of
the speed of light," adds Reinhard Genzel,
leader of the research group that has been
studied this region for nearly twenty years.

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"This means that the front end of the cloud


has already made its closest approach to
the black hole."
The origin of the gas cloud remains
mysterious, although there is no shortage of
ideas [5]. The new observations narrow
down the possibilities.
"Like an unfortunate astronaut in a science
fiction film, we see that the cloud is now
being stretched so much that it resembles
spaghetti. This means that it probably
doesnt have a star in it," concludes
Gillessen. "At the moment we think that the
gas probably came from the stars we see
orbiting the black hole."
The climax of this unique event at the centre
of the galaxy is now unfolding and being
closely watched by astronomers around the
world. This intense observing campaign will
provide a wealth of data, not only revealing
more about the gas cloud [6], but also

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probing the regions close to the black hole


that have not been previously studied and
the effects of super-strong gravity.

Notes

[1] The black hole at the centre of the Milky


Way is estimated to have a mass of about
four million times that of the Sun and is
formally known as Sgr A* (pronounced
Sagittarius A star). It is the closest
supermassive black hole known by far and
hence is the best place to study black holes
in detail. The study of the supermassive
black hole at the centre of the galaxy and its
environment is rated number one in the list
of ESO's top ten astronomical discoveries.
[2] The distance of closest approach is
about five times the distance of the planet
Neptune from the Sun. This is much too
close for comfort to a black hole with a mass
four million times that of the Sun!

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[3] In an integral field spectrometer the light


recorded in each pixel is separately spread
out into its component colours and so
spectra are recorded for each pixel. The
spectra can then be analysed individually
and used to create maps of the velocities
and the chemical properties of each part of
the object, for example.
[4] The team is also hoping to see evidence
of how the rapidly moving cloud interacts
with any ambient gas around the black hole.
So far nothing has been found, but further
observations are planned to look for such
effects.
[5] Astronomers thought that the gas cloud
might have been created by stellar winds
from the stars orbiting the black hole. Or
possibly even be the result of a jet from the
galactic centre. Another option was that a
star was at the centre of the cloud. In this
case the gas would come either from a wind
from the star, or from a planet-forming disc

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of gas and dust around the star.


[6] As this event at the centre of the galaxy
unfolds, astronomers expect to see that the
evolution of the cloud switches from purely
gravitational and tidal to complex, turbulent
hydrodynamics.

More information

This research was presented in a paper


"Pericenter passage of the gas cloud G2 in
the Galactic Center", by S. Gillessen et al, to
appear in the Astrophysical Journal.
The team is composed of S. Gillessen (Max
Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics,
Garching, Germany [MPE]), R. Genzel
(MPE; Departments of Physics and
Astronomy, University of California,
Berkeley, USA), T. K. Fritz (MPE), F.
Eisenhauer (MPE), O. Pfuhl (MPE), T. Ott
(MPE), M. Schartmann
(Universittssternwarte der Ludwig-

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Maximilians-Universitt, Munich, Germany


[USM]; MPE), A. Ballone (USM; MPE) and
A. Burkert (USM; MPE).
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental
astronomy organisation in Europe and the
worlds most productive ground-based
astronomical observatory by far. It is
supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium,
Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark,
France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the
Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden,
Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO
carries out an ambitious programme focused
on the design, construction and operation of
powerful ground-based observing facilities
enabling astronomers to make important
scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a
leading role in promoting and organising
cooperation in astronomical research. ESO
operates three unique world-class observing
sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and
Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the

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Very Large Telescope, the worlds most


advanced visible-light astronomical
observatory and two survey telescopes.
VISTA works in the infrared and is the
world's largest survey telescope and the VLT
Survey Telescope is the largest telescope
designed to exclusively survey the skies in
visible light. ESO is the European partner of
a revolutionary astronomical telescope
ALMA, the largest astronomical project in
existence. ESO is currently planning the
39-metre European Extremely Large
optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT,
which will become "the world's biggest eye
on the sky".

Links

Research paper
Photos of the VLT
MPE web page on the Galactic Centre
Press release from MPE (English| German)

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Contacts

Stefan Gillessen
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial
Physics
Garching bei Mnchen, Germany
Tel: +49 89 30000 3839
Email: ste@mpe.mpg.de
Reinhard Genzel
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial
Physics
Garching bei Mnchen, Germany
Tel: +49 89 30000 3281
Email: genzel@mpe.mpg.de
Richard Hook
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT & Survey
Telescopes Press Officer
Garching bei Mnchen, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Email: rhook@eso.org
Connect with ESO on social media

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