In four billion years, our home, the Milky Way, will merge with the neighboring Andromeda and completely rewrite Earth's night sky. Whether humans will be around to watch this transformation is probably unlikely, but the Hubble Space Telescope has captured two other galaxies in the process of merging, giving Earthlings a sneak peek into what the process may look like.
The phenomenon captured by Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 is actually quite common, and rather beautiful, in the universe. It's also a very slow process, and so scientists only just recently figured out the galaxies were merging at all, United Press International reported.
The galaxy called NGC 6052 is located in the constellation Hercules about 230 million light years away, Tech Times reported. For a long time, scientists described it as a single abnormal galaxy because of its odd shape.
But that odd shape was actually a sign that what they thought was one galaxy was actually two galaxies, smack dab in the middle of a very gradual collision and merging process. NGC 6052 is a single body created by an "intergalactic crash."
The Hubble camera that captured this remarkable collision is a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), and it was the ESA that described the merging to Tech Times and Space.com.
"It would be reasonable to think of this as a single abnormal galaxy, and it was originally classified as such... [I]t is in fact a 'new' galaxy in the process of forming. Two separate galaxies have been gradually drawn together, attracted by gravity, and have collided. We now see them merging into a single structure."
For now, these merging galaxies are going to look pretty chaotic as they crash and meld together to form one. This collision has been pretty disorienting, throwing stars in each galaxy out of their original orbits and ejecting them far away from their birthplace into distant trajectories. These off-kilter stars are now on completely different paths, and since they emit light, they make NGC 6052 look rather chaotic and hodgepodge.
The photons detected by Hubble in the merging galaxies began this long journey to create a new structure 230 million years ago.
The merging galaxies will look strange for quite a while, but eventually, they will settle into a stable structure. In the end, NGC 6052 could look much different from the two merging galaxies that created it.
The Hubble Space Telescope is managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and launched into low-Earth orbit in 1990 on the space shuttle Discovery. Since then, it has made many remarkable discoveries. The telescope has the distinct honor of being the first ever put in space.
Hubble has a clear line of sight that has given scientists a perfect view of far away stars, galaxies, and planets in the solar system. It takes pictures of these distant bodies while flying around the Earth at 17,000 mph.
More recently, Hubble found and predicted the explosion of the Refsdal supernova in December, the first time the phenomena was witnessed and forecasted. The last explosion took place about 10 billion years ago.
Hubble's camera, the WFPC2, records pictures to 48 color filters that cover the spectrum from far ultraviolet to visible and near-infrared wavelengths. It contains a small high-resolution camera and an L-shaped trio of wide-field sensors.
In the first years the Hubble was in use, the camera was the telescope's most frequently used instrument. Its predecessor, WFPC1, is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
[Photo via YouTube]