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The sleeping giant at the centre of the Milky Way? is about to wake up. A suicidal gas cloud is heading towards the galaxy's supermassive black hole, which will probably swallow the cloud, generating enormous flares of radiation that could help explain why the black hole is normally so placid.

The doomed cloud was a surprise to astronomers. "We have been looking at the galactic centre for 20 years, but mainly to observe the motion of stars," says Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

Genzel's colleague Stefan Gillessen spotted the cloud in images from the Very Large Telescope array in Chile, taken in March this year. It is an unusually dense cloud, not much bigger than our solar system and carrying about three times the mass of Earth.

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