Spectacular Galaxies Dancing Towards Destruction

by Nancy Atkinson on March 31, 2011

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Image of NGC 6872 (left) and companion galaxy IC 4970 (right) locked in a tango as the two galaxies gravitationally interact. The galaxies lie about 200 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Pavo (the Peacock). Image credit: Sydney Girls High School Astronomy Club, Travis Rector (University of Alaska, Anchorage), Ángel López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory/Macquarie University), and the Australian Gemini Office.

More than just another pretty picture? I’ll say! This beautiful image of the galaxy pair NGC 6872 and IC 4970 was part of a competition for high school students in Australia to obtain scientifically useful (and aesthetically pleasing) images using the Gemini Observatory. The winners were students from the Sydney Girls High School Astronomy Club in central Sydney, who proposed that Gemini investigate these two galaxies that are embraced in a graceful galactic dance that, — as the team described in the essay to support their entry — “…will also serve to illustrate the situation faced by the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy in millions of years.”

We can only hope we look this pretty millions of years from now!

This image shows what happens when galaxies interact, and how the gravitational forces distort and tear away at their original structure. Spiral galaxies can have their arms elongate out to enormous distances: in NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years—many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872’s arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872.

But that will be another pretty picture, as galaxy mergers often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872’s elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

Members of the SGHS Astronomy Club Executive Council receiving the Gemini image on behalf of the entire club. Photo credit: Australian Gemini Office.

Learn more about the contest and the winning team at this article on the Gemini website. Also, a new contest is underway for Australian students in 2011, and more details can be found at this link.

Source: Gemini Observatory

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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