The astronomical phenomenon – a larger version of the black holes which form when the centres of giant stars collapse in upon themselves – is widely regarded to reside at the centre of our galaxy.
However, scientists have long struggled to explain how the supermassive versions, which are ten billion times bigger than the Sun, are formed.
New pictures from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) show clumps of gas swirling around at about 30% of the speed of light on a circular orbit just outside its event horizon.
It is the first time material has been observed orbiting close to the point of no return, and the most detailed observations yet of material orbiting this close to a black hole, scientists say.
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Specialist equipment was used to take a close look at the infrared radiation coming from the accretion disc around Sagittarius A*, the massive object at the heart of the Milky Way.
The ESO said the observed flares provide long-awaited confirmation that the object in the centre of the galaxy is, as has long been assumed, a supermassive black hole.
The flares originate from material orbiting very close to the black hole’s event horizon – making these the most detailed observations yet of material orbiting this close to a black hole.
Reinhard Genzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, who led the study, said: ‘This always was one of our dream projects but we did not dare to hope that it would become possible so soon.’