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Dusty Gas Cloud Survived a Cloud Encounter with a Supermassive Black Hole

First Posted: Mar 27, 2015 05:53 AM EDT
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Scientists have gotten the best view yet of a dusty gas cloud, G2, after it made its closest approach to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Not only did the cloud survive the encounter, but it appears as if it's avoided being significantly stretched.

At the heart of the Milky Way galaxy is a supermassive black hole with a mass that's four million times that of the sun. This black hole is orbited by a small group of bright stars and a dusty cloud, known as G2. This could has been tracked on its fall toward the black hole after the past few years, and it made its closest approach in May 2014.

Now, researchers have made the best observations of this cloud with the help of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). The new images are in infrared light coming from glowing hydrogen. These pictures reveal that the cloud was compact both before and after its closest approach as it swung around the black hole.

Although earlier observations suggested that the G2 object was being stretched, the new observations don't show evidence that the cloud had become significantly stretched out. The resilience of the dusty cloud to the extreme gravitational tidal effects suggests that the cloud surrounds a dense object with a massive core rather than being a free-floating cloud. This is supported by the lack of evidence that the central core is being fed with material, which would lead to flaring and increased activity.

"We looked at all the recent data and in particular the period in 2014 when the closest approach to the black hole took place," said Andreas Eckart, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We cannot confirm any significant stretching of the source. It certainly does not behave like a coreless dust cloud. We think it must be a dust-shrouded young star."

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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