Scientists believe that super massive black holes lie at the center of most galaxies, and our own Milky Way doesn't seem to be any different. As it turns out, our black hole even has a name: Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short; that last bit is pronounced "A-star"). And it might treat us to an unparalleled showcase of mass destruction over the next year.
While researchers are not able to directly observe black holes, as they emit no light or matter, scientists can observe the behavior of the celestial bodies around the massive space suckatrons.
Here's a video comprised of images taken of Sgr A* over the past 10 years by the European Southern Obervatory's "Very Large Telescope" (VLT) based in northern Chile.
But this rare glimpse of a cosmological dance on human scales might be nothing compared to what will be coming over the next year. Researchers are very excited about a gas cloud three times the mass of Earth that is barreling towards Sgr A* and on a direct collision course for sometime in mid-2013.
"The next few years will be really fantastic and exciting because we are probing new territory," Reinhard Genzel, a VLT team leader, told Universe Today. "Here this cloud comes in, gets disrupted, and now it will begin to interact with the hot gas right around the black hole. We have never seen this before."
Currently the cloud appears 36 light-hours (around 25,000,000,000 miles — a puddle-jump in astrological terms). Researchers have determined that the cloud has doubled speed over the past seven years and is currently traveling at nearly five million miles per hour
No one knows exactly what will unfold over the next few months, but the cloud edges have already started to shear and will soon start to break apart. It is also expected to get much hotter and will start to emit X-rays as it approaches oblivion.
Stefan Gillessen, astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich expects the cloud to become elongated as it gallops towards Sgr A*. But this is all uncharted territory.
"So far, there were only two stars that came that close to Sagittarius A*," Gillessen said. "They passed unharmed, but this time will be different: the gas cloud will be completely ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole."
This is, of course, all from our vantage point as the actual event took place 27,000 light years away, and the light from the event is only reaching the Earth now. Still, better late than never, right?