Astronomers at the Gemini North telescope in Hawai’i have released a stunning image showing two spiral galaxies about to collide and merge.
The clash galaxies NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 – also known as the Butterfly Galaxies because of the double-lobed shape their interaction causes – lie 60 million light-years away from Earth in the Virgo cluster and will form a brand new elliptical galaxy in about 500 million years, according to a statement from NOIRLab, which operates the Gemini North telescope.
The new image gives scientists a “sneak preview” of what will happen in about 5 billion years when our galaxy, The Milky Waycollides with its nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. That collision will give each galaxy a major make-over, as well as throwing the sun and solar system into another region of the resulting galaxy.
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The image depicts the early stages of a galactic merger, one of the most spectacular events in the universe, and shows the two galaxies locked together by their mutual gravitational fields.
The respective centers of NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 are still about 20,000 light-years apart, about three-quarters of the distance between Earth and the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
Life and death for stars
The original spiral shapes of both galaxies are still clear in the image, but as the merger progresses these arm-like patterns will be destroyed. The galaxies will lose their spiral structures as their battling gravitational forces trigger intense bursts of star formation.
Over millions of years, as the galaxies twist around each other in ever-tightening loops, streams of gas and stars will be pulled out of each galaxy. This process blends the individual structures of NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 into a single one elliptical galaxy is created.
By this time, the fuel for star formation – cool, dense clouds of gas and dust – will have been used up or driven out of what is left of the progenitor galaxies, ending the period of rapid star birth.
By combining computer simulations with observations of galactic mergers such as the one between NGC 4568 and NGC 4567, scientists have discovered that mergers between galaxies form regular and characteristic elliptical galaxies.
This means that at the end of the merger process, NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 will likely create a galaxy roughly similar to its older neighbor, Messier 89, which is also in the Virgo Cluster. This ancient galaxy now has only minimal star formation and consists of older, low-mass stars and ancient, tightly bound pockets of tens to millions of stars called ball piles.
The Gemini North image, which was created from data collected in 2020, also shows a supernova, the bright cosmic explosion triggered by the death of a massive star. The supernova, named SN 2020fqv, was first observed in 2020 and appears in the image as a bright spot located in the center of one of the spiral arms of NGC 4568, the galaxy at the bottom of the image.
The aftermath of the explosion was first discovered by The Hubble Space Telescope and provided astronomers with a ringside seat to a star’s final moments. Scientists use observations like these to create an early warning system for other stars on the verge of going supernova.
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