Unexpectedly Intriguing!
November 16, 2018

The universe is both stranger and more fascinating than all but a few can imagine. Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait just had that kind of realization after reviewing a paper with 59 co-authors, a group of astronomers and astrophysicists known as the GRAVITY team, who peered deep into the heart of the Milky Way galaxy to make an extraordinary discovery.

I read quite a few scientific journal papers every week, seeing which ones might make a good fit for the blog. They’re always interesting, and of course some have more ground-breaking results than others. But you can count on the fingers of one hand how many times one has made me exclaim out loud upon reading it.

I just read one where I exclaimed out loud.

In fact, I may have exclaimed an expletive out loud — “holy [synonym of feces]!” — when I read the abstract of this particular paper.

Why? Because in the paper, a team of astronomers show that they have observed a blob of dust sitting just outside the point of no return of a supermassive black hole, where the gravity is so intense that this material is moving at thirty percent the speed of light. And this wasn’t inferred, deduced, or shown indirectly. No: They measured this motion by literally seeing the blobs move in their observations.

Better still, there's video, assembled from actual images of the region they studied, as can be seen in the following presentation that zooms in on that region of space to reveal those images, then zooms in even closer via an animation of the orbiting gas for a really close-up view of what observations and astrophysics says is happening just outside of the edge of the black hole at the core of the Milky Way.

The hot "blob of dust" appears to be orbiting the black hole about once every 31 minutes. At 30% of light speed, that dust would be moving at more than 201 million miles per hour as it revolves around the black hole.

By comparison, the Sun, which is much farther away, is moving at speeds over 514,000 miles per hour (828,000 kilometers per hour) around the same black hole, where it will take about 230 million years to complete its orbit around the black hole at the focal point of the Milky Way galaxy.


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