Last week, scientists presented us with another episode of The Scary Supermassive Black Hole Diaries. Right at the center of our home galaxy, a giant void called Sagittarius A* has been caught on camera terrorizing a giant clump of interstellar debris.
While this amazing event itself isn’t exactly a new discovery, the researchers’ latest details, published February 21 in The Astrophysical Journal, paint the best picture yet of this huge blob’s doomed history.
To be clear, Sgr A*, and therefore everything in its vicinity, is more than 20,000 light-years away from our vantage point on Earth, which technically means that this extreme situation occurred more than 20,000 years ago. We only took the footage now because it took for so long for luminescence originating from the storm to reach our telescopes. However, for the sake of discussion and my general sanity, I’ll talk about it in the present tense.
Back to our exciting cloud of dust and gas, this object is called X7, has a mass equivalent to about 50 Earths and appears to have been swirling around Sgr A* for decades at ungodly speeds reaching about 700 miles per second. second. But most importantly, experts have been keeping a close eye on the X7 for the longest time due to its rather confusing shape – it looks like a Tic-Tac – and the fact that it’s changed shape a little too quickly for comfort.
Now the cinematic story of the X7 is open for all of us to watch.
“No other object in this region has shown such extreme evolution,” Anna Ciurlo, an assistant research scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.
As Ciurlo explains, the X7 started out comet-shaped. But she and other researchers followed it for about 20 years, during which time they watched it grow longer as it entered deeper … and deeper … into Sgr A*’s gravitational tides.
“It is exciting to see significant changes to X7’s shape and dynamics in such great detail over a relatively short time scale, as the gravitational forces of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way affect this object,” Randy Campbell, a co-author. of the paper and science operations led at Keck Observatory, a machine that helped with the team’s analysis, said in a statement.
Theoretically, scientists think it will take X7 something like 170 years to complete its orbit around Sgr A* – but in truth, this blob probably won’t make it that far.
The embrace of a black hole is relentless.
“We expect that the strong tidal forces exerted by the galactic black hole will eventually tear X7 apart before it completes another orbit,” co-author Mark Morris, professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, said in a statement.
Which brings me to episode 852, probably, of The Scary Supermassive Black Hole Diaries. Here’s what will most likely happen to the X7 during its eventual demise.
When you think of supermassive black holes, it’s not uncommon to imagine them “swallowing” or “sucking in” parts of our universe, perhaps even to the tune of an ominous soundtrack. Looking at you Hans Zimmer. But in reality, these voids are far more passive than you’d expect – and that’s what makes them all the more terrifying.
Scattered across space, black holes sort of sit where, with their enormous gravitational pull, a star—or interstellar cloud, in this case—accidentally gets a little too close. Instantly and effortlessly, the beast’s gravity begins to compress, stretch, twist and bend the unfortunate orb. It will continue to happen until the thing looks like a laaaaaaaang noodle. This process is (quite aptly) called spaghettification.
Slowly, the noodling thing falls closer to the black hole, even crossing the hazy boundary between our universe and what lies within the abyss – the event horizon.
Outside this region nothing can escape. Not atoms, not sound, not light and definitely not the black hole’s now diminished X7 dinner. No, this thing would no longer be part of our universe then. It would be part of another reality that we humans cannot access without suffering the same fate.
And then the blob will be “gone” forever.
What exactly is X7? And where did it come from?
“One possibility is that X7’s gas and dust were ejected at the moment two stars merged,” Ciurlo said, stressing that such stellar mergers are very common near black holes. “In this process, the merged star is hidden inside a shell of dust and gas, which may fit the description of the G objects. And the ejected gas may have produced X7-like objects.”
Even with the team’s amazing new lens on the object, that bit remains a mystery.