Oct. 31 (UPI) -- A team of scientists at the European Southern Observatory, or ESO, spotted flares of infrared radiation shooting up from a gas circle near the orbit of Sagittarius A*. The flare ups began after material orbited close to the the black hole's event horizon, or point of no return. The ESO scientists believe the flare ups stemmed from a magnetic reactions caused by the hot gas ring.
"It's mind-boggling to actually witness material orbiting a massive black hole at 30% of the speed of light," said Oliver Pfuhl, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. "GRAVITY's tremendous sensitivity has allowed us to observe the accretion processes in real time in unprecedented detail."
The Sagittarius A* black hole is 41 million miles in diameter. That's more than four million times the mass of the Earth's sun and big enough to engulf the entire orbit of Mercury.
To capture the moment, the team used a GRAVITY instrument on the Very Large Telescope. In July, ESO scientists used GRAVITY and the Very Large Telescope to capture an image of the S2 orbiting Sagittarius A*, both of which have never come closer to each other than the Sun to Neptune.
"We were closely monitoring S2, and of course we always keep an eye on Sagittarius A*," Pfuhl said. "During our observations, we were lucky enough to notice three bright flares from around the black hole -- it was a lucky coincidence!"
A video shows a swirling cluster of gas, circling the orbit at approximately 30 percent of the speed of light, just outside a 4 million solar mass black hole.
The team published their findings on Wednesday in the Journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics.
"This always was one of our dream projects but we did not dare to hope that it would become possible so soon," Reinhard Genzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.
"We were closely monitoring S2, and of course we always keep an eye on Sagittarius A*," explained Pfuhl. "During our observations, we were lucky enough to notice three bright flares from around the black hole - it was a lucky coincidence!"