Mystery Gas Cloud On Course To Enter Supermassive Black Hole At Milky Way's Heart

The result could be a boom or a sizzle.

Center of the Milky Way

As imaged by the Swift X-ray Telescope. This image includes data from 2006-2013.Nathalie Degenaar

Astronomers expect a mysterious gas cloud to cross paths with the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy in the next few months. Then, one of two things could happen. The cloud could plunge on in, throwing off intense X-rays as it goes. Or, if the cloud contains a star that astronomers cannot currently see, the star will pass by unaffected, while some of the cloud enters the black hole less spectacularly.

This prediction comes from astronomers at the University of Michigan, who have been monitoring the black hole, called Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-star), using NASA's Swift telescope. If the gas cloud, called G2, does get completely sucked into the black hole, astronomers will be able to measure the resulting x-rays for years to come. They can use that data to learn how dim black holes like Sagittarius A* consume matter.

The Michigan team posts its Swift data online daily, so other scientists can know right away once G2 impacts Sagittarius A*. They sound pretty excited about the whole thing. "Everyone wants to see the event happening because it's so rare," Nathalie Degenaar, the lead scientist in the Swift monitoring project, said in a statement. She and her colleagues presented their work so far on Sagittarius A* at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.