An massive black hole is currently stretching an object apart like taffy at the core of our galaxy.
Scientists now have a rare opportunity to see and study this tremendous cosmic event, and photos of the phenomenon are available.
The “X7” gas and dust cloud is hurtling towards the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*. The gravity of a black hole is nearly incomprehensible because of its extraordinarily dense mass (if Earth were crushed into a black hole, it would be under an inch broad), and astronomers have observed X7 morphing for two decades as it nears its final years. According to recent measurements published in The Astrophysical Journal(Opens in a new tab), X7 has been elongated by a factor of a trillion, or ten times its original length. Its length has increased to 3000 a.u. The average distance between the sun and Earth, expressed as an astronomical unit, is 93 million miles.
There isn’t much time left for X7. The force of the black hole’s gravity is unrelenting.
“In the near future, it will rip X7 apart,” Anna Ciurlo, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the principal author of the research, told Mashable. We’re fortunate to be able to see it now.
A black hole’s cosmic effect is on full display in the enormous stretching of X7. The cloud’s extended stretch can be attributed to the strong gravitational pull exerted on the leading edge of the cloud relative to the tail. In 2036, X7 will reach its perihelion distance from Sagittarius A*, after which it will disintegrate. The remaining debris will then spiral around the black hole, releasing energy as it heats up. Naturally, some of this stuff will get sucked into the black hole and never come out again. (After an object crosses the “event horizon” of a black hole, it can never leave again without travelling faster than the speed of light.)
The first graph below depicts the expansion of X7 from 2002 to 2021. The observations were made using the twin 10-meter (or approximately 33-foot) telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Hawaii’s towering Mauna Kea.
There is an animation depicting X7’s destruction as it is torn apart by the black hole’s gravity underneath this graphic.