A new telescopic image shows two entangled galaxies that will eventually merge into one in millions of years. The collision provides a glimpse into a similar eventual fate for our Milky Way.
The Gemini North Telescope, located atop Maunakea in Hawaii, spotted interacting spiral galaxies about 60 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. The galactic couple NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, also known as the butterfly galaxies, are just beginning to collide as gravity holds them together.
Within 500 million years, the two cosmic systems will completely fuse to form an elliptical galaxy. At this early stage, the centers of the two galaxies are still 20,000 light-years away, and each galaxy has retained its spiral shape. As galaxies become more entangled, gravitational forces will trigger multiple events of intense star formation. The original structures of galaxies will be altered and distorted.
Over time, they will dance around each other in circles that get smaller and smaller. The dance of the narrow ring will attract and stretch long streams of gas and stars, mixing the two galaxies into something resembling a ball.
The afterglow of the supernova, first observed in 2020, also appears in the new image as a bright spot in one of the spiral arms of NGC 4568.
Melting in the Milky Way
A similar galactic merger will occur when our Milky Way galaxy finally collides with the Andromeda galaxy, our largest and closest galaxy. NASA astronomers used Hubble data in 2012 to predict when the two spiral galaxies will directly collide. It is estimated that this will happen in about 4 to 5 billion years.
Currently, a massive halo, a large envelope of gas, that surrounds the Andromeda galaxy is already colliding with the galactic halo, according to research based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope published in 2020.
This neighbor, which probably contains a trillion stars, is about the size of our large galaxy, and is only 2.5 million light-years away. This may seem incredibly far away, but on an astronomical scale, Andromeda is so close that the galaxy is visible in our autumn sky. You can see it as a dim, cigar-shaped point of light, high in the sky.
NASA scientists said it’s unlikely our solar system will be destroyed when the Milky Way merges with Andromeda, but the sun could set out to a new part of the galaxy and Earth’s night sky could be some new.
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