New image of colliding galaxies provides insight into the fate of the Milky Way | CNN

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A new telescope image features two entangled galaxies that will eventually merge into one millions of years from now – and provides insight into the eventual, similar fate of our own Milky Way galaxy.

The Gemini North Telescope, located atop Maunakea in Hawaii, has spotted the interacting spiral galaxies about 60 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo.

The galactic pair NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, also known as the Butterfly galaxies, have just begun to collide as gravity pulls them together.

In 500 million years, the two cosmic systems will complete their merger to form a single elliptical galaxy.

At this early stage, the two galactic centers are currently 20,000 light-years apart, and each galaxy has retained its pinwheel shape. As the galaxies become entangled, gravitational forces will lead to multiple intense star formation events. The original structures of the galaxies will change and distort.

Over time, they will dance around each other in smaller and smaller circles. This tight-loop dance will pull and stretch long streams of gas and stars, blending the two galaxies together into something resembling a sphere.

Over millions of years, this galactic tangle will consume or disperse the gas and dust needed to trigger star birth, causing star formation to slow down and eventually stop.

Observations of other galactic collisions and computer modeling have provided astronomers with more evidence that spiral galaxy mergers create elliptical galaxies.

Once the pair are reunited, the resulting formation could look more like the elliptical galaxy Messier 89, also located in the constellation Virgo. Once Messier 89 lost most of the gas needed for star formation, very few star births occurred. Today, the galaxy is home to older stars and ancient clusters.

The afterglow of a supernova, detected for the first time in 2020, is also visible in the new image as a bright spot in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy NGC 4568.

A similar galactic merger will occur when the Milky Way galaxy eventually collides with the Andromeda galaxy, our largest and closest galactic neighbor. NASA astronomers used Hubble data in 2012 to predict when a head-on collision between the two spiral galaxies might occur. Estimates predict that the event will occur in about 4 to 5 billion years.

Right now, a massive halo that surrounds the Andromeda galaxy actually collides with the halo of the Milky Way galaxy, according to research based on Hubble Space Telescope data released in 2020.

The Andromeda halo, a large envelope of gas, extends 1.3 million light-years from the galaxy, almost halfway across the Milky Way, and up to 2 million light-years in other directions.

This neighbor, which probably contains up to 1 trillion stars, is similar in size to our large galaxy, and it’s only 2.5 million light-years away. It may seem incredibly distant, but on an astronomical scale, it makes Andromeda so close that it is visible in our autumn skies. You can see it as a little cigar-shaped fuzzy light high in the sky during the fall.

And if we could see Andromeda’s massive halo, invisible to the naked eye, it would be three times the width of the constellation Ursa Major, which dwarfs everything else in our sky.

NASA scientists have said our solar system is unlikely to be destroyed when the Milky Way and Andromeda merge, but the sun could be thrown into a new region of the galaxy – and the night sky from Earth could have spectacular new views.

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