New observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed the intricate structure of the galaxy NGC 4696 in greater detail than ever before. The elliptical galaxy is a beautiful cosmic oddity with a bright core wrapped in system of dark, swirling, thread-like filaments.
NGC 4696 is a member of the Centaurus galaxy cluster, a swarm of hundreds of galaxies all sitting together, bound together by gravity, about 150 million light-years from Earth and located in the constellation of Centaurus.
Despite the cluster’s size, NGC 4696 still manages to stand out from its companions — it is the cluster’s brightest member, known for obvious reasons as the Brightest Cluster Galaxy . This puts it in the same category as some of the biggest and brightest galaxies known in the Universe.
Even if NGC 4696 keeps impressive company, it has a further distinction: the galaxy’s unique structure. Previous observations have revealed curling filaments that stretch out from its main body and carve out a cosmic question mark in the sky (heic1013), the dark tendrils encircling a brightly glowing centre.
An international team of scientists, led by astronomers from the University of Cambridge, UK, have now used new observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to explore this thread-like structure in more detail. They found that each of the dusty filaments has a width of about 200 light-years, and a density some 10 times greater than the surrounding gas. These filaments knit together and spiral inwards towards the centre of NGC 4696, connecting the galaxy’s constituent gas to its core.
In fact, it seems that the galaxy’s core is actually responsible for the shape and positioning of the filaments themselves. At the centre of NGC 4696 lurks an active supermassive black hole. This floods the galaxy’s inner regions with energy, heating the gas there and sending streams of heated material outwards. … (Hubble)