NGC 6240: Gigantic Hot Gas Cloud Sheaths Colliding Galaxies

Looking almost like a cosmic hyacinth, this image is anything but a cool, Spring flower… it’s a portrait of an enormous gas cloud radiating at more than seven million degrees Kelvin and enveloping two merging spiral galaxies. This combined image glows in purple from the Chandra X-ray information and is embellished with optical sets from the Hubble Space Telescope. It flows across 300,000 light years of space and contains the mass of ten billion Suns. Where did it come from? Researchers theorize it was caused by a rush of star formation which may have lasted as long as 200 million years.

What we’re looking at is known in astronomical terms as a “halo” – a glorious crown which is located in a galactic system cataloged as NGC 6240. This is the site of an interacting set of of spiral galaxies which have a close resemblance to our own Milky Way – each with a supermassive black hole for a heart. It is surmised the black holes are headed towards each other and may one day combine to create an even more incredible black hole.

However, that’s not all this image reveals. Not only is this pair of galaxies combining, but the very act of their mating has caused the collective gases to be “violently stirred up”. The action has caused an eruption of starbirth which may have stretched across a period of at least 200 million years. This wasn’t a quiet event… During that time, the most massive of the stars fled the stellar nursery, evolving at a rapid pace and blowing out as supernovae events. According to the news release, the astronomers who studied this system argue that the rapid pace of the supernovae may have expelled copious quantities of significant elements such as oxygen, neon, magnesium and silicon into the gaseous envelope created by the galactic interaction. Their findings show this enriched gas may have expanded into and combined with the already present cooler gas.

Now, enter a long time frame. While there was an extensive era of star formation, there may have been more dramatic, shorter bursts of stellar creation. “For example, the most recent burst of star formation lasted for about five million years and occurred about 20 million years ago in Earth’s time frame.” say the paper’s authors. However, they are also quick to point out that the quick thrusts of star formation may not have been the sole producer of the hot gases.

Perhaps one day these two interactive spiral galaxies will finish their performance… ending up as rich, young elliptical galaxy. It’s an act which will take millions of years to complete. Will the gas hang around – or will it be lost in space? No matter what the final answer is, the image gives us a first-hand opportunity to observe an event which dominated the early Universe. It was a time “when galaxies were much closer together and merged more often.”

Original Story Source: Chandra X-Ray Observatory News Release.

Tammy Plotner

Tammy was a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status. (Tammy passed away in early 2015... she will be missed)

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