Astronomers using Herschel have spotted a cloud of incredibly hot gas very close to the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy.
The supermassive black hole goes by the name of Sagittarius A*, and weighs in at 4 million times the mass of our Sun. It is nearly 30,000 light years away at the very centre of our galaxy, but is still hundreds of times closer than other such black holes, which are usually found at the centres of large galaxies.
Its relative proximity makes it the ideal target for studying these extreme environments in detail, though our view is often obscured by dense clouds of dust draped throughout the Milky Way. By studying it in far-infrared light, Herschel can see through this dust and examine the surroundings of the black hole itself. The black hole is surrounded by a ring of gas around 30 light years across, but right in the centre is a mini spiral of gas flowing inwards.
Herschel observations taken in 2011 and 2012 allowed astronomers to examine the region within around a light year of the black hole itself. The data showed the presence of elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, as well as simple molecules including water, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.
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