There is a lot of mystery surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, known as Sagittarius A*. But astronomers just made a major discovery – for the first time, they've observed material orbiting extremely close to this black hole.
Using the Very Large Telescope in Chile, astronomers measured a blob of gas orbiting at 60 million miles away from the black hole. Thanks to the incredible strength of gravity here, the cloud of gas is traveling at 30 percent the speed of light, or 60,000 miles per second. (At that speed, you could travel around the Earth over two times per second!)
To make this more impressive, all of this was measured directly – not by looking at a distant effect, but directly watching this cloud of gas whip around Sagittarius A*.
This is all very cool, and one of the most difficult observations ever made by astronomers. But what does it tell us?
Well, for starters, it is another incredibly strong piece of evidence that there is, in fact, a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
More than that, though, it helps us confirm Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which are laws of physics that govern extremely fast moving objects. Due to the fact that we can never see a black hole directly, measuring the things around it is the only way we can study them, and this is by far the closest object we have ever seen to a black hole.
Interested in learning more? We're covering this topic all weekend in our planetarium show, "Black Holes." The stunning film opens with a live presentation by a planetarium educator. Catch it in the Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium, the biggest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere! Click here to see a full list of shows currently playing.