Even if only you have the most basic understanding of astronomy you’ve probably heard of a black hole. They form in the wake of a huge supernova, which is when a star explodes. After the explosion these stars collapse in on themselves and create a massive gravitational pull that nothing can escape from, including light.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has a black hole toward the center of it called Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A*. This black hole is apparently hungry, as it is going to consume a ton of gas in the next couple years.
Using the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in the European Southern Observatory, astronomers can see a cloud of gas that is roughly three times the size of Earth accelerating toward the black hole. This means the gravitational pull of the black hole has latched onto the cloud and has begun drawing it, process that will get faster and faster the closer the gas gets to the black hole.
The collision of these two massive celestial bodies will be very interesting to witness, as scientists don’t know what exactly will happen. The immense gravitational pull from the black hole will heat the gas in the cloud by several million degrees, at which point it will begin to emit X-Rays. After that, it may be ripped in two, with one part of the cloud launched out into space while another part settles around the black hole, but no one is sure yet if this is going to be the case.
You won’t be able to view this on a regular telescope, as it’s far too distant, but you can see similar objects with a small refractor or reflector telescope. The rings of Saturn were viewed hundreds of years ago by Galileo, who thought there were ears on the planet, so you shouldn’t struggle to see them with the advanced astronomy optics we have available to us today.
The gas that settles around the black hole may form an accretion disk, which is very similar to Saturn’s rings. Accretion discs are usually around stars, but they also form around black holes. As planets revolve around stars and moons revolve around planets, an accretion disk is a huge bulk of mass that has not formed into a solid chunk that floats around a star or black hole. This mass swirls around the black hole, which many artists represent similar to water going down a drain.
Get a look at Saturn’s Rings by taking out your refractor telescope, setting it up on your tripod and enjoying a bit of Astronomy. There’s so much to see, and the smartest guys on the planet spend a lot of time guessing wrong about what’s going to happen in the myriad of events taking place all the time in the Universe! You may not be watching black holes consume gas, but the laws of physics cause these types of events to happen in a number of different ways, so you can still learn a lot.