The gravitational pull of a black hole is powerful enough to trap everything in its surrounding, including light. Black holes like Sagittarius A* – read A-star – will consume clouds of dust, gas and even entire stars as a result of their gravity. But the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way appears to be growing hungrier, consuming increasingly unusual amounts of stellar material. The incredible discovery made by astronomers in America has stunned researchers who have never seen anything quite like it before.
Andrea Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said: “We have never seen anything like this in the 24 years we have studied the supermassive black hole.
“It’s usually a pretty quiet, wimpy black hole on a diet. We don’t know what is driving this big feast.”
The black hole discovery was published this week in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The study reported observations made by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, which observed bright flashes in near-infrared coming from the black hole.
In total, the researchers analysed 13,000 Sagittarius A* observations made on 133 nights since 2003.
The astronomers discovered the area near the back hole’s event horizon – the point of no return – was incredibly bright on May 13.
Two similar observations were made on other nights, leading Dr Ghez and his team to dub the anomalies “unprecedented”.
The peaks in brightness were attributed to material falling into the black hole.
As vast quantities of cosmic dust and gas are sucked in, they emit intense radiation that is detectable from Earth.
Mark Morris, a UCLA professor of physic and astronomy, said: “The big question is whether the black hole is entering a new phase – for example, if the spigot has been turned up and the rate of gas falling down the black hole ‘drain’ has increased for an extended period – or whether we have just seen the fireworks from a few unusual blobs of gas falling in. “
The researchers will continue to monitor the black hole for more information about its growing appetite.
Dr Ghez said: “We want to know how black holes grow and affect the evolution of galaxies and the universe.
“We want to know why the supermassive hole gets brighter and how it gets brighter.”
Does the supermassive black hole threaten our solar system?
Despite Sagittarius A* growing hungrier, the black hole is located a safe 26,000 light-years away.
The distance is measures approximately 152,844,260,000,000,000 miles.
The black hole is estimated to weigh more than four billion times than our Sun.
The black hole belongs to the family of supermassive black holes – the much bigger and mysterious cousins of stellar black holes.