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Adapted from a press release of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, November 24, 2014:

Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics recently presented new observations of the gas cloud G2 in the Galactic Centre, which was originally discovered in 2011. These data are in remarkably good agreement with an on-going tidal disruption. As a complete surprise came the discovery that the orbit of G2 matches that of another gas cloud detected a decade ago, suggesting that G2 might actually be part of a much more extensive gas streamer. This would also match some of the proposed scenarios that try to explain the presence of G2. One such model is that G2 is originating from the wind from a massive star.

The gas cloud G2 is on a highly eccentric orbit around the Galactic Center. Observations in 2013 have shown that part of the gas cloud is already past its closest approach to the black hole, at a distance of roughly 20 light hours (a bit more than 20 billion kilometres).

The new, deep infrared observations with the SINFONI instrument at the VLT track the ongoing tidal disruption of the gas cloud by the powerful gravitational field. While the shape and path of the gas cloud agrees well with predictions from the models, so far there has been no significant enhanced high-energy emission, as one might have expected from the associated shock front.

Copyright and credit: Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics

Copyright and credit: Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics

However, a closer look into the data set led to a surprise. A decade ago, another gas cloud – now call G1 – was observed in the central region of our galaxy and it has a similar orbit. The researchers postulate that G1 and G2 might be clumps of the same gas streamer. G1 and G2 could be clumps in the wind ejected from of one of the massive disk stars in the vicinity. This could help to explain the missing X-ray emission from the gas cloud near the black hole (although the non-detection of such emission is not yet understood).

Links: MPE press release, including figures and detailed captions.


Adapted from a UCLA press release, November 3, 2014.

For years, astronomers have been puzzled by a bizarre object in the center of the Milky Way that was believed to be a hydrogen gas cloud headed toward our galaxy’s enormous black hole. (See Section 15.5, Chapter opener figure, p. 382, and Figure 15-5, p. 388.)

Having studied it during its closest approach to the black hole this summer, UCLA astronomers believe that they have solved the riddle of the object widely known as G2.

A team led by Andrea Ghez determined that G2 is most likely a pair of binary stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged together into an extremely large star, cloaked in gas and dust – its movements choreographed by the black hole’s powerful gravitational field. The research is published today in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Astronomers had figured that if G2 had been a hydrogen cloud, it could have been torn apart by the black hole, and that the resulting celestial fireworks would have dramatically changed the state of the black hole. However, G2 survived and continues on its orbit unaffected.

G2 appears to be just one of an emerging class of stars near the black hole that are created because the black hole’s powerful gravity drives binary stars to merge into one. In our galaxy, massive stars primarily come in pairs. The star suffered an abrasion to its outer layer but otherwise will be fine.

Keck Observatory

Credit and copyright: Ethan Tweedie Photography

The team utilized the Keck Observatory’s adaptive optics technology, a powerful technology that corrects the distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere in real time to more clearly reveal the space around the supermassive black hole.

Links: full UCLA press release, Keck press release.

Recent observations from April this year of the galactic center have revealed that parts of the in-falling gas cloud, which was detected in 2011, have already swung past the black hole at the heart of our Milky Way. Due to the tidal force of the gravity monster, the gas cloud has become further stretched, with its front moving now already 500 km/s faster than its tail. This confirms earlier predictions that its orbital motion brings it is close to the black hole, that it will not survive the encounter. With the new, detailed, observations the astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) can now also place new constraints the origins of the gas cloud, making it increasingly unlikely that it contains a faint star inside, from which the cloud might have formed.


Credit: ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann

The full article, with accompanying graphics, may be found here.