Something unusual and mysterious has happened to NGC 4696. Located about 150 million light-years away in the constellation Centaurus, the object is an elliptical galaxy. That should mean a previous collision with another galaxy ripped off its spiral arms, stripped away most of its interstellar gas, and condemned it to a slow death. But NGC 4696 has sprouted something never seen on another galaxy: a huge swirl of dust that stretches for tens of thousands of light-years and whips back around like a question mark. Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope released today show another first: filaments of ionized, or charged, hydrogen gas branching from the dust swirl. And views in x-ray light (not shown) reveal super-powerful jets of matter squirting from the galaxy’s central black hole at nearly the speed of light. Together, these features show that NGC 4696 is a galaxy like no other. Astronomers suspect that the filament resulted from some sort of gravitational interaction with another galaxy, possibly a collision.
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Sun & Planets roughly to scale. Distances not to scale.