A team of astronomers have, using the Hubble Space Telescope, captured a stunning new image of the spiral galaxy NGC 4696 — a "cosmic oddity" located 150 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Centaurus. The image provides a glimpse, in unprecedented detail, of how the supermassive black hole in the galaxy's core is creating intricate, thread-like filaments around it.

Previous observations had revealed that these filaments that stretch out from NGC 4696's main body encircle a bright centre, where an active supermassive black hole is feeding on dust and debris and heating up the surrounding gas to temperatures that make it glow white-hot. This phenomenon is what makes NGC 4696 stand out from among the other members of the Centaurus cluster, making it one of the biggest and brightest galaxies in the observable universe.

The new Hubble observations reveal that the dark tendrils of dust encircling the galactic core have a width of about 200 light-years, and a density roughly 10 times greater than the surrounding gas. These filaments knit together, thereby connecting the galaxy’s constituent gas to its core, flooding its inner regions with high-energy material.

"At the very centre of the galaxy, the filaments loop and curl inwards in an intriguing spiral shape, swirling around the supermassive black hole at such a distance that they are dragged into and eventually consumed by the black hole itself," NASA and the ESA explained in a statement accompanying the image.

Scientists believe that understanding how the filaments in NGC 4696 form may help explain why the galaxy, and several other massive galaxies near us, appear stunted and dead. It is possible that in these galaxies, the strong magnetic fields are also swept out along with the clouds of gas and dust, resulting in turbulence that prevents the formation of stars.