An image of merging galaxies hints at what lies ahead for the Milky Way

The colliding and interacting spiral galaxies designated NGC 4568 and NGC 4567—also known as the Butterfly Galaxy because of the two-lobed shape their interaction causes—are located about 60 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo.

NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 have begun to collide as gravity pulls them together. According to the statement of the American company NOIRLab, which operates the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, in about 500 million years, these two cosmic systems will complete the connection and form a single elliptical galaxy.

Gemini Observatory is an astronomical observatory consisting of two 8.19 meter telescopes: Gemini North (Hawaiian Islands) and Gemini South (Chile).
Gemini North – the official name of the instrument is the Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope; this telescope is located in Hawaii on the Mauna Kea volcano at an altitude of 4213 meters.

A new image of galaxies gives scientists some insight into what might happen in about five billion years to “our place,” as predicted by NASA experts, when our Milky Way collides with its nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Such a collision would fundamentally transform any galaxy—in our case, it would likely throw the Sun and the Solar System into a different region of the resulting galaxy.

The cores of galaxies 20,000 light years apart

At this early stage, the centers of both galaxies NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, although it doesn’t look like it in the photo, are 20 thousand light years apart. As galaxies become more intertwined, gravitational forces will lead to numerous intense star formation events. The original structures of galaxies will change and deform.

Spiral galaxy NGC 4567 a NGC 4568 according to the Czech Astronomical Society, it belongs to the large cluster of galaxies in Virgo. A spiral pair with classical spiral arms, dust belts and star clusters is also known as Butterfly galaxy whether Siamese twins. The pair of galaxies very close to each other does not yet appear to be too deformed by gravitational tides. Their giant molecular clouds collide and probably support the formation of massive star clusters. Their cores are separated by about 20 thousand light years.

Over time, they will “dance” around each other in smaller and smaller circles, as the CNN news station points out, which also reported on the new film. The tight dance will pull and stretch the long streams of gas and stars, mixing the two galaxies together into something resembling a sphere, so to speak.

As millions of years pass, the galactic cluster uses up or dissipates the gas and dust needed to trigger star formation, causing star formation to slow and eventually stop. Observations of other galactic collisions and computer modeling provide astronomers with evidence that the merger of spiral galaxies creates elliptical galaxies.

When the pair merges, the resulting formation may look more like an elliptical galaxy, for example Messier 89 (M89 / NGC 4552), which is also located in the constellation Virgo. Once the M89 object lost most of the gas needed to form stars, very little star formation took place. Now the galaxy is home to older stars and ancient star clusters.

The image also shows the glowing remnants of a supernova that was detected in 2020.

Foto: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURAImage processing: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage/NSF, NOIRLab), J. Miller (Gemini Observatory/NSF, NOIRLab), M. Zamani (NSF, NOIRLab) & D. de Martin (NSF, NOIRLab)

In the new image of NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, we can also see the afterglow of the supernova, first detected already in 2020. It is there in the form of a bright spot in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy NGC 4568.

These so-called butterfly galaxies were also captured this January by the VLT (Very Large Telescope) telescope at the Paranal Observatory in the Chilean Andes, which is operated by the intergovernmental organization European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The Butterfly Galaxy in another image from January 2022

Photo: ESO

She reminds us that galaxy collisions are not unusual in the universe. Although we might think they are “dramatic and catastrophic”, according to ESO, they are surprisingly calm – like a dance of stars, gas and dust, staged by gravity. And this fate, as already mentioned, is likely to await the Milky Way as well.

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