(Photo : ESA-C. Carreau)
In a rare glimpse into black hole behavior, the Herschel space observatory has caught our galaxy's supermassive black hole in the process of devouring a massive cloud of cooked gas.
The supermassive black hole, with a mass equivalent of four million suns, is located 26,000 light-years away in an area of our galaxy known as Sagittarius A*(Sgr A*). While this may seem like a huge distance, it's cosmically close to us, and one of the easier black holes for scientists to study.
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"The black hole appears to be devouring the gas," said Paul Goldsmith from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This will teach us about how supermassive black holes grow."
Black holes consuming matter is nothing new to researchers. The gravitational pull from a black hole is strong enough to suck in even light - hence the "black" in black hole. What is interesting to the experts is that the black hole seems to "cook" up the gas to extremely high temperatures before munching down.
Interstellar clouds of gas typically reside at a temperature slightly above minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit. The clouds orbiting and falling into our galaxy's supermassive black hole, however, have temperatures close to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. While no concrete explanation has been found, scientists theorize that the high temperatures are due to collision shocks from highly magnetized gas and UV rays from massive stars also within the black hole's orbit.
"The observations are also consistent with streamers of hot gas speeding towards Sgr A*, falling towards the very center of the galaxy," lead author of the study, astronomer Javier Goicoechea, said. "Our galaxy's black hole may be cooking its dinner right in front of Herschel's eyes."
You can read the full published study in Astrophysical Journal Letters.