Astronomers at the University of California, Los Angeles have observed the X7 cosmic cloud, which is torn apart as it approaches the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The results of the study are published in The Astrophysical Journal .
The scientists captured near-infrared images of the cloud with high angular resolution using the Keck Observatory’s powerful adaptive optics system. X7 has become very elongated, its length is three thousand times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
X7 has a mass of about 50 Earth masses and is orbiting a black hole called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), which takes 170 years to orbit. The powerful tidal forces generated by the galactic black hole are expected to eventually tear the cloud apart before even one revolution has been made.
X7 exhibits some of the same observable properties as other dusty objects orbiting Sgr A*, called G objects, which look like gas clouds but behave like stars. It is assumed that they were formed from material ejected during the merger of two stars. The shape and structure of the X7 velocity has changed more significantly compared to the G objects. The stretched gas and dust filament moves quickly, reaching speeds of up to 788 kilometers per second.
X7 will make its closest approach to Sgr A* around 2036 and then completely dissipate shortly thereafter. The gas and dust that make up X7 will eventually be attracted to Sagittarius A*, whose activity will increase as a result of accretion.