One of the universe's most spectacular events, a galactic merger, has been observed 60 million light-years away near the Virgo constellation. New photos that show two galaxies on the cusp of colliding, as they were about 60 million years ago, and scientists say it's a preview of what's to come for our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
The International Gemini Observatory's Gemini North telescope captured the impending merger. The centers of the two spiral galaxies, NGC 4568 and NGC 4567, were 20,000 light-years away from each other when the photos were taken – about the same distance from Earth to the center of the Milky Way – but as they enclose upon one another, the magnitude of the collision will be unleashed.
"Their dueling gravitational forces will trigger bursts of intense stellar formation and wildly distort their once-majestic structures," the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab, which operates the observatory, said earlier this week.
The galaxies will spend millions of years swinging past each other in tightening loops, creating "long streamers of stars and gas." They'll eventually be so entwined that they will exist as a single galaxy that "emerges from the chaos" without the gas or dust needed to create stars, NOIRLab said.
And as encapsulating as watching the collision is, it's also a dire preview of our galaxy's fate – in about 5 billion years, the Milky Way will likely have its own galactic merger with the Andromeda Galaxy.
NASA announced such a fate in 2012, when the Hubble Space Telescope found that Andromeda is "inexorably falling toward the Milky Way" at roughly 250,000 miles per hour – fast enough to travel from Earth to the moon in an hour. NASA did say, however, that stars inside each of the galaxies will be so far apart that they don't collide with each other and will instead be thrown into different orbits around the new center of the new, combined galaxy.
Astronomers believe that these kinds of events create elliptical galaxies, which are shaped like stretched-out circles and have minimal dust or gas to create stars, often making them duller than other galaxies. Once the NGC 4568 and 4567 complete their combined transformation, NOIRLab predicts that they will look like Messier 89, another elliptical galaxy in Virgo.