A spectacular simulation of a black hole at the centre of our galaxy devouring a massive cloud of super-hot gas has been released.
The images were made by a supercomputer, which was tasked with working out how the enormous collision will occur.
The cloud of dust and gas is known as 'G2'. The dust has been measured at about 550 degrees Kelvin - or twice the temperature of the surface of the Earth. Meanwhile the gas is 10,000 degrees Kelvin - hotter than the surface of the Sun.
The giant cloud is heading towards the black hole known as SgrA*, located near the centre of the Milky Way.
"While this one is 3-to-4 million times as big as our sun, it has been relatively quiet," according to astrophysicist Stephen Murray. "It's not getting fed very much."
That's set to change when the cloud enters its 'gravity well'. Even though the cloud will pass by the 'point of no return', the effective boundary of the black hole, at about 200 times the distance of the Earth to the Sun, it will still lose much of its mass as it is pulled apart. Some of its material will likely disappear into the super-heavy object itself.
Exactly what that destruction will look like is still open to debate. Computational physicist Peter Anninos worked with Murray, both of AX division within the Weapons and Complex Integration Directorate, Chris Fragile, at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and his student, Julia Wilsonboth, to develop six simulations of the disaster.
Using the Cosmos++ computer code developed by Anninos and Fragile the simulation took more than 50,000 computing hours on 3,000 processors on the Palmetto supercomputer at Clemson University in Columbia, South Carolina, to complete.
Our results show that the cloud will begin to experience significant disruption starting in 2013. At the start, the cloud is modeled as a simple gas sphere near the point in its orbit where it was first discovered in 1995, or at its orbital apocenter in 1944.
As it approaches Sgr A*, tidal stretching increasingly distorts the cloud, stretching it along its trajectory. By the end of 2012, it will be nearly five times longer than it is wide.
Along with tidal stretching, the cloud experiences ram pressure forces as it tries to plow through background gas, and hydrodynamic interactions with this material cause further disruptions. Collectively, these effects gradually strip material from the cloud and feed it into Sgr A*, beginning in 2013.