Approximately 5 billion years from now, the Milky Way galaxy will collide with its nearest large galaxy neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. The image you see is a preview of what this collision may look like as Andromeda smashes into the Milky Way.
This haunting image shows the collision and merging of two spiral galaxies, NGC 4568 and NGC 4567, captured by Hawaii’s Gemini North telescope. The galaxies are located some 60 million light-years away in the Virgo constellation.
In about 500 million years, these galaxies will be entangled by their mutual gravitational fields and will become one elliptical galaxy. A supernova remnant detected in 2020 can also be seen in the image.
In the direction of the constellation Virgo, Gemini North, one of the twin telescopes of Gemini International Observatory, has already detected the first stages of this cosmic collision.
A galactic merger, one of the most spectacular events in the Universe, is about to take place between NGC 4568 (bottom) and NGC 4567 (top). It is still believed that the centers of these galaxies are 20,000 light-years apart (about the distance from Earth to the center of the Milky Way), and they are still pinwheel-shaped.
In a statement, NOIRLab, which operates the Gemini telescope, explained that those placid conditions would soon change.
It is anticipated that the merger of NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 will unleash explosions of intense star formation and wildly distort their once-majestic structures as a result of their dueling gravitational forces.
A single, essentially spherical galaxy emerges from the chaos over millions of years as the galaxies continually intersect in ever tighter loops, drawing in streams of stars and gas. It is anticipated that most of the gas and dust (the fuel for star formation) in this system will have been consumed by that time.
In about 5 billion years, the Milky Way and its closest large galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, will collide in a similar way. Blueshift indicates that the Andromeda Galaxy is approaching the Milky Way at about 110 kilometers per second (68 mi/s). Nonetheless, lateral speed (measured as proper motion) is very difficult to measure accurately enough to draw meaningful conclusions. Prior to 2012, it was unknown if the collision would actually occur.
In 2002 and 2010, researchers measured the positions of stars in Andromeda in relation to hundreds of distant background galaxies using the Hubble Space Telescope. With sub-pixel accuracy, they were able to estimate proper motion by averaging thousands of stars. Based on the results, Andromeda is moving with a speed of less than 200 km/s towards the south and east, corresponding to less than 0.1 milliarcseconds per year in the sky.
One of the spiral arms of NGC 4568 is shaped by the afterglow of SN 2020fqv, a supernova detected in 2020. Data from 2020 was used to produce the new Gemini image.
Astronomers now have convincing evidence that spiral galaxies like these merge into elliptical galaxies after decades of observation and computer modeling.
It is likely that NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 will eventually resemble Messier 89, an elliptical galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. Since Messier 89 lacks star-forming gas, it consists mostly of lower-mass stars and ancient globular clusters with minimal star formation.
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