What is this supermassive black hole?
Called Sagittarius A star (Sgr A*), this black hole is at the center of our Milky way, in the constellation of Sagittarius. It's the closest supermassive black hole known, only a mere 27,000 light years away. This hungry beast has a mass four million times that of the Sun.
What are you watching here?
This video shows a zoom sequence from our home planet to the center of the Milky Way. The final frames show the gas cloud moving quickly into the black hole.
What is this cloud?
The dying cloud is made of ionized hydrogen and helium. Its temperature is much cooler than anything around it, only 280 degrees Celsius (536 degrees Fahrenheit). It is as big as three Earths, and it glows because of the ultraviolet radiation of the stars around it.
What will happen next?
As it chews the gas cloud, the supermassive black hole is stretching it like in science fiction movies, according to the lead author of the paper, Stefan Gillessen:
The idea of an astronaut close to a black hole being stretched out to resemble spaghetti is familiar from science fiction. But we can now see this happening for real to the newly discovered cloud. It is not going to survive the experience.
The edges of the cloud are being shredded to pieces. It will continue to compress, increasing the pressure and its temperature. Scientists believe it will start emitting X-rays as this process happens. In just a few years, it will break up completely until it is fully consumed by this beast.
How fast is this process?
Very fast, and it's only accelerating. In only seven years, the speed of the gas cloud has almost doubled, getting to more than 8 million kilometers per hour (4.97 million mph). By mid-2013, the cloud will "pass at a distance of only about 40 billion kilometres from the event horizon of the black hole."
This is a computer simulation of all the objects currently around the supermassive black hole, including the cloud. It shows their current and future motion. [ESO]