(ORDO NEWS) — An object 681 million light-years away may look like one gorgeous, exquisite mess, but at a glance, there’s a lot more going on.
The object featured in the new Hubble image, named IC 2431, is not one galaxy, but three merged in a massive galactic merger that will one day become one huge galaxy bearing the scars of its cataclysmic collision.
Such objects can help us understand how massive galaxies grow and evolve over millions and billions of years, and how our universe will continue to change in the ages to come.
It might seem like galactic mergers should be rare given how much space there is out there, but they seem to be a pretty integral part of the process of galactic evolution.
The Milky Way, for example, has undergone several galactic mergers in its 13.6 billion year history.
Astronomers believe that galaxies are gravitationally attracted to each other, perhaps along the strands of an invisible cosmic web that extends and plays a vital role in shaping the universe, into clusters that slowly coalesce.
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, W. Keel, Dark Energy Survey, DOE, FNAL, DECam, CTIO, NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, SDSS, J. Schmidt.
These collisions cause gravitational disruptions that shake and compress star-forming gas in galaxies, setting off waves of star formation as dense clumps of material collapse under their own gravity to form young stars.
A galaxy whose star formation rate is declining is likely to see a burst of star formation during and after an interaction with another galaxy.
Double galactic collisions are the most frequently observed galactic mergers, but there are also a number of triple mergers.
They are not always easy to spot, depending on how complete the merge is.
In the later stages of the merger, the supermassive black holes at the centers of each galaxy approach each other and close in a double or triple orbit.
The more such collisions we identify, the better we can understand how they occur and model how they unfold over millions of years.
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