This is what it looks like when a black hole devours matter

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Jun 26, 2015

At the center of our galaxy is a black hole nine light-years wide and 4 million times more massive than our sun. It's a monstrous astronomical creature that devours matter, and thanks to a very sophisticated telescope we've got a better picture of what that looks like.

The above image of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy was taken by researchers using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope and presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week. The golden swirl that takes up most of the image is the Circumnuclear Ring, a cloud of glowing, swirling dust that's constantly circling the black hole.

That's beautiful and fascinating all by itself, but you see that bright white shape in the center that looks a bit like an upside-down T? That's believed to be matter enjoying its last moments out in the universe before being sucked into the Milky Way's center.

The picture is noteworthy not just because of what it depicts, but because of how it was captured. See, the Hubble Telescope can't capture an image like this, because it doesn't have instruments to read the far-infrared light the ring is giving off. SOFIA can, though, and researchers hope its infrared instrumentation can help them further study just how the Milky Way black hole works.

"The resolution and spatial coverage of these images is astounding, showing what modern infrared detector arrays can do when flown on SOFIA," SOFIA Chief Scientific Advisor Eric Becklin said. "We hope to use these data to substantially advance our understanding of the environment near a supermassive black hole."

What will SOFIA see next? Stay tuned.

(SOFIA via Slate)