NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured a new image showcasing a dramatic cosmic collision between two galaxies. The image provides a glimpse into the eventual fate of our own Milky Way galaxy as it heads towards a merger with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in billions of years.
Overview of the Galaxy Merger
The latest Hubble image showcases a merging galaxy system called Arp 122, located some 300 million lightyears away in the constellation Coma Berenices. Arp 122 comprises of two interacting spiral galaxies that are in the process of merging together into a new, single elliptical galaxy. 1
The larger of the two galaxies has a visible central bar structure that appears slightly bent. This distortion is likely a result of gravitational interactions from its smaller companion galaxy. Stars, gas and dust are being exchanged and redistributed between the two galaxies due to enormous tidal interactions as they continue to merge over millions of years. 2
Hubble first observed and imaged this interesting interacting system back in 1994 using its Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. But this latest image is the most detailed view so far, utilizing advanced cameras and transmission capabilities that have since been added to the aging telescope over successive servicing missions.
Dramatic Features Seen in Merger
Several dramatic features indicative of the cosmic collision are seen in the new image. These include extended arcs and loops of stellar matter ejected from the galaxy pair under the strong gravitational forces at play.
There is also an intense burst of star formation happening in the heart of the merger, triggered as gas and dust accumulate into dense pockets and ignite star birth. Some 500 million new stars are blazing bright blue and can be seen amidst the graceful swirls of the merging galaxies in the image. 3
Additionally, the image showcases the important role that supermassive black holes held in the cores of the two galaxies play in galaxy evolution. As these black holes spiral together over time, they end up unleashing powerful energy in the last stages of merger.
|Tidal Loops and Tails
|Gravity has distorted and torn apart the structure of the galaxies. Extended loops of gas, stars and dust eject out under the immense gravitational forces at play.
|Burst of Star Formation
|Bright blue star formation glows at the heart of the merger as gas and dust accumulate into dense pockets. Around 500 million new stars are blazing in the image.
|Supermassive Black Holes
|Each galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole at its core. As they spiral together in the merger, copious energy is unleashed impacting surrounding stellar material.
Hubble’s Vital Legacy and Mission Fate
The Hubble Space Telescope has proved indispensable for understanding our cosmos over its remarkable 33 year science mission in Earth orbit. Launched in 1990, it observes the universe in visible, ultraviolet and infrared light from its vantage point high above distortions of the Earth’s atmosphere. 4
With its crystal clear imaging and ground-breaking observations, Hubble has revolutionized astronomy and changed our very understanding of the cosmos and universe origins. From Bilding the age of the universe and charting cosmic expansion, to helping discover dark energy and peering back to the earliest formative years after the big bang—Hubble has been at the forefront of unlocking many enduring mysteries about our universe.
But the aging observatory is nearing the eventual end of life given dwindling power reserves and component redundancies. NASA aims to safely deorbit Hubble out of Earth orbit sometime next decade in a controlled re-entry over a remote ocean location. Before that fate however, astronomers are working hard to squeeze out every last drop of science from the space telescope workhorse. 5
“With its crystal clear imaging and ground-breaking observations, Hubble has revolutionized astronomy and changed our very understanding of the cosmos and universe origins.”
Fate of the Milky Way Similar to Merging Galaxies
The dramatic Hubble image also provides key insights into the eventual cosmic fate of our home Milky Way galaxy. In about 4 billion years, the Milky Way is due to collide and merge with its nearest neighboring galaxy Andromeda, an event that will fundamentally transform both galaxies.
Our cosmic neighborhood and night sky vistas will be forever altered as the familiar spiral structure of the Milky Way becomes distorted and torn apart under the gravitational tug-of-war with Andromeda. A new giant elliptical galaxy will emerge from the collision process as the stars, dust and gas from both galaxies mix and redistribute. 6
While collisions of large galaxies are frequent events on cosmological timescales, the actual mergers unfold over exceptionally long periods lasting hundreds of millions to billions of years. So there is little likelihood that our far-future Solar System and planetary orbits would be disrupted in any significant way when the Milky Way-Andromeda merger runs its full course.
But night sky vistas will certainly evove and look foreign to current gazers as gravitationally-disrupted stellar streams arc across merged galaxy views. Our galactic neighborhood space will also become a more chaotic place as stars get gravitationally kicked into erratic trajectories by the enormous collision energy channeled into orbital dynamics.
In conclusion, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has imaged an intriguing ongoing spiral galaxy collision that provides hints into the eventual cosmic fate of our Milky Way Galaxy. Hubble’s legacy has been to showcase the immensely dynamic nature of galaxies over cosmic time. While galaxy mergers unfold over truly grand timescales, they are believed to be instrumental in shaping all giant galaxies seen in our current universe.
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