Sunday, January 13, 2008

Renegade Black Holes, Monstrous Gas Cloud Threaten

At the BBC this week we learned of a giant hydrogen gas cloud surging towards our galaxy that, when it officially collides in 20 to 40 million years, “will be just like a bomb going off.” Also from the BBC, we found that “hundreds of rogue black holes” currently “prowl the milky way.”

Seems like every week, the universe is
a more violent, menacing place.

Just how many rogues black holes, the sharks of the cosmic sea, are we talking about? “There should be hundreds of intermediate-sized black holes wandering invisibly through the Milky Way,” said one expert. That’s not a whole lot considering how massive the galaxy is, and the chances of one of those monsters sucking up the solar system is “one in ten quadrillion per year,” but there’s more to the story.

In addition to destroying the planet, a wandering black hole may disturb cosmic systems in such a way that could make things very interesting in our neighborhood. For example, one of these things could drift through the
Oort Cloud (our solar system’s outer reaches) and trigger a downpour of comets into the inner solar system.

Back to that hydrogen gas cloud. It actually has a name, “Smith’s Cloud,” Smith as in American astronomer Gail Smith who discovered the cloud in 1963. When it was discovered, they couldn’t tell if it was coming or going. Now we know it’s coming at 240 kilometers per second, it’s 11,000 by 2,500 light years and contains enough hydrogen to spark “a million stars like the Sun.”

While we probably won’t see a million suns when the cloud smashes into the Milky Way, we can expect a “tremendous burst” of massive, fast-burning stars that will quickly burn out and go supernova. “It'll look like a celestial New Year's celebration, with huge firecrackers,” said one scientist.

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