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Black hole paints stunning picture as it shapes distant galaxy

The Hubble Space Telescope captures a distant supermassive black hole playing with its food and the results are spectacular.

This picture from the Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 4696, the brightest galaxy in the Centaurus Cluster.
NASA, ESA/Hubble, A. Fabian

Black holes love to eat and supermassive black holes love to eat even more. But some, like the one at the center of NGC 4696, create beautiful and odd works of cosmic art with their food.

NGC 4696 is in the Centaurus galaxy cluster about 150 million light-years away. New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope have helped reveal that a supermassive black hole at its center actually helps stretch the galaxy into the dramatic spiral shapes seen in the images above.

Hot streams of gas and the galaxy's magnetic field also play a role in sculpting its elegant shape.

That doesn't mean this galaxy will be disappearing tomorrow, though. Much of the matter in the photo is actually streaming away from the black hole. Each of the reddish tendrils that make up the galaxy have a width of about 200 light-years, so it would be quite a meal for a single black hole anyhow.

First published December 1, 3:13 p.m. PT.
Correction, December 2, 9:21 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story said the entire galaxy would eventually be swallowed by the black hole at its center. In fact, much of it is flowing in the opposite direction. The story and its headline have been corrected to reflect this.