Strange Objects Orbit the Supermassive Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way

Astronomers reveal that a series of strange objects--shapeshifting stars--have been spotted near the supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

The universe is far stranger than we’ve ever imagined it would seem.

According to a recent paper published in the journal Nature, a new class of strange objects has been discovered by a group of astronomers at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, not far away from the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*.

Although we can’t possibly see them with our current telescopes, the researchers who discovered their existence say that the objects behave like gas and stars.

As explained in the paper published in Nature, these objects appear compact most of the time and seem to stretch when their orbits bring them closer to the black hole.  Astronomers say that their orbits range between 100 and 1,000 years.

This discovery works on the findings made by experts more than 15 years ago.

Back in 2005, astronomers identified an unusual object at the center of our galaxy which was later named G1.

In 2012, astronomers from Germany made a surprising discovery of a strange object called G2 at the center of the Milky Way that made a close approach to the supermassive black hole in 2014.

Researchers believe that G2 are in fact two stars that have been orbiting the supermassive black hole in pair, and were eventually fused forming a supermassive star that is surrounded by gas and dust and has an increased density. Astronomers have estimated that G2 has a mass of around three times that of Earth.

“We had seen it before, but it didn’t look too peculiar until it got close to the black hole and became elongated, and much of its gas was torn apart,” explained Andrea M. Ghez.

“It went from being a pretty innocuous object when it was far from the black hole to one that was really stretched out and distorted at its closest approach and lost its outer shell, and now it’s getting more compact again.”

We know that G2 is an extremely eccentric orbit around Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole with an estimated mass equal to more than 4 million suns.

As the object approached the black hole in 2014, observations showed its outer casing being torn off and swept down the black hole.

“When that happens, it might be able to produce an impressive firework show since the material eaten by the black hole will heat up and emit copious radiation before it disappears across the event horizon,” revealed Mark Morris, a co-author and UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

Earlier studies of G2 suggested the object to be no more than a diffuse cloud of gas. However, astronomers eventually saw the object survive a close approach to the black hole, indicating that it must have an extremely dense, star-like interior. Nonetheless, the researchers state in the recent study that so far, no broad consensus has yet been reached concerning their nature.

The first image of a Black Hole compared in size to our solar system. Image Credit: Randall Munroe / XKCD.
The first image of a Black Hole (M87) compared in size to our solar system. Image Credit: Randall Munroe / XKCD.

Further observations in the following years revealed four additional objects that have similar orbits, all of which are located no more than a few light-months (within 0.04 parsecs) away from Sagittarius A*.

Earth is located 26,000 light-years away from the supermassive black hole.

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