A gas cloud on its way towards the supermassive black hole at the Galactic Centre

S. Gillessen, R. Genzel, T. K. Fritz, E. Quataert, C. Alig, A. Burkert, J. Cuadra, F. Eisenhauer, O. Pfuhl, K. Dodds-Eden, C. F. Gammie, T. Ott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

247 Scopus citations

Abstract

Measurements of stellar orbits provide compelling evidence that the compact radio source Sagittarius A* at the Galactic Centre is a black hole four million times the mass of the Sun. With the exception of modest X-ray and infrared flares, Sgr A* is surprisingly faint, suggesting that the accretion rate and radiation efficiency near the event horizon are currently very low. Here we report the presence of a dense gas cloud approximately three times the mass of Earth that is falling into the accretion zone of Sgr A*. Our observations tightly constrain the cloud's orbit to be highly eccentric, with an innermost radius of approach of only ∼3,100 times the event horizon that will be reached in 2013. Over the past three years the cloud has begun to disrupt, probably mainly through tidal shearing arising from the black hole's gravitational force. The cloud's dynamic evolution and radiation in the next few years will probe the properties of the accretion flow and the feeding processes of the supermassive black hole. The kilo-electronvolt X-ray emission of Sgr A* may brighten significantly when the cloud reaches pericentre. There may also be a giant radiation flare several years from now if the cloud breaks up and its fragments feed gas into the central accretion zone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-54
Number of pages4
JournalNature
Volume481
Issue number7379
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 5 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

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