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Milky Way Giant Black Hole And Gas Cloud To Soon Rip Apart

12/15/2011 05:12 PM ET

Our Milky Way galaxy has a massive black hole at the center that will soon rip apart a vast cloud of gas. This gas could reveal just how supermassive these things can be, and for centuries, no one knew of its existence until now. Scientists say it contains about 4.3 million times the mass of the sun.

This black hole, which scientists have named Sagittarius A*, is thought to lurk at the heart of the Milky Way. It’s location is based on clues from intense radio emissions — matter near a black hole can release extraordinary amounts of light, including radio waves, as it gets super-heated rushing toward the point of no return.

In fact, Sagittarius A* is surprisingly faint, suggesting that activity around it currently is very low, researchers said.

This limits what investigators can deduce about its properties and behavior, as well as those of the other supermassive black holes thought to dwell in the cores of virtually all large galaxies.

“It is by no means easy to feed a black hole — if you were to throw something into its direction and you miss it a bit, the object would just swing by the black hole, like a spacecraft does when it passes a planet,” study lead author Stefan Gillessen.

Gillessen is an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. He recently spoke with SPACE.com about the giant black hole.

“The object can only fall in if you point very precisely towards the black hole and hit it, or if during the swing-by the object loses energy and decelerates such that it falls in,” Gillessen said.

For those of you who have the Science Channel (Cable and DirecTV), there’s a program called “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman,” that features an episode of Sagittarius A* and super black holes. You can watch a 3 minute portion of the segment from the video shown below.

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