The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a stunning new photograph showing two barred spiral galaxies some 350 million light-years away in the process of merging, with their galactic nuclei still far away from each other as they spew clouds of hot gas.
The galaxies in collision make up the system known as Arp 256, situated in the Cetus constellation, or the Whale.
“This image suspends them in a single moment, freezing the chaotic spray of gas, dust and stars kicked up by the gravitational forces pulling the two galaxies together,” the European Space Agency described.
Again, the two galaxies in the photograph are still insanely far away from each other, but their shapes have begun to distort. The galaxy in the upper part of the photo feature pronounced tidal trails or long ribbons of gas, stars, and dust.
Also in the photo are regions of star formation, seen as bright blue fireworks-like particles as they churn out hot infant stars, which, according to ESA, is triggered by “massive gravitational interactions” that cook up interstellar gas and dust, birthing stars in the process.
Because in space things move at a mind-bogglingly slow pace, the two galaxies are actually still in their early stage of collision. They will continue merging for millions of years and eventually end up as one large galactic structure, according to ESA.
Galaxy mergers are a common phenomenon in the universe. In fact, our own home, the Milky Way, is expected to eventually merge with our neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, in about 4 billion years, meaning we all won’t be here at that point.
There won’t be any dramatic catastrophes when that merger occurs, though. Since stars are so far apart from each other, the chances of actual collision — that is, two bodies literally crashing into each other — are low. Assuming the sun hasn’t exploded yet by the time the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy collide, the future human race will have insane views of the night sky. Assuming, of course, there’s still a human race at that time.
The new Arp 256 photo in question is an updated version of the one released in 2008, said ESA. It was created via two Hubble Space instruments, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, or ACS, and the Wide Field Camera 3, or WFC3. The telescope has been orbiting the earth for 28 years, and over the years, it has received a handful of repairs, upgrades, and maintenance to keep giving humans astonishing shots like the one above.