It Turns Out, Andromeda is Younger Than Earth… Sort Of

Since ancient times, astronomers have looked up at the night sky and seen the Andromeda galaxy. As the closest galaxy to our own, scientists have been able to observe and scrutinize this giant spiral galaxy for millennia. By the 20th century, astronomers realized that Andromeda was the Milky Way’s sister galaxy and was moving towards us. In 4.5 billion years, it will even merge with our own to form a supergalaxy.

However, it seems astronomers were wrong about the Andromeda galaxy in one major respect. According to recent study led by a team of French and Chinese astronomers, this giant spiral galaxy formed from a major merger that occurred less than 3 billion years ago. This means that Andromeda, as we know it today, is effectively younger than our very own Solar System, which has it beat by about 1.5 billion years!

The study, titled “A 2-3 billion year old major merger paradigm for the Andromeda galaxy and its outskirts“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Francois Hammer, the Principle Investigator of the Galaxies, Etoiles, Physique et Instrumentation (GEPI) department at the Paris Observatory, the team included members from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Strasbourg.

For the sake of their study, the relied on data gathered by recent surveys that noted considerable differences between the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies. The first of these studies, which took place between 2006 and 2014, demonstrated all Andromeda has a wealth of young blue stars in its disk (less than 2 billion years old) that undergo random motions over large scales. This is contrast to the stars in the Milky Way’s disk, which are subject only to simple rotation.

In addition, deep observations conducted between 2008 and 2014 with the French-Canadian telescope in the Hawaiian Islands (CFHT) indicated some interesting things about Andromeda’s halo. This vast region, which is 10 times the size of the galaxy itself, is populated by gigantic currents of stars. The most prominent of which is called the “Giant Stream”, a warped disk that has shells and clumps at its very edges.

Using this data, the French-Chinese collaboration then created a detailed numerical model of Andromeda using the two most powerful computers available in France – the Paris Observatory’s MesoPSL and the National Center for Scientific Research’s (CNRS) IDRIS-GENCI supercomputer. With the resulting numerical model, the team was able to demonstrate that these recent observations could be explained only by a recent collision.

Basically, they concluded that between 7 and 10 billion years ago, Andromeda consisted of  two galaxies that had slowly achieved a encountering orbit. After optimizing the trajectories of both galaxies, they determined that they would have collided 1.8 to 3 billion years ago. This collision is what gave birth to Andromeda as we know it today, which effectively makes it younger than our Solar System – which formed almost 4.6 billion years ago.

What’s more, they were able to calculate mass distributions for both parent galaxies that merged to formed Andromeda, which indicated that the larger galaxy was four times the size of the smaller. But most importantly, the team was able to reproduce in detail all the structures that compose Andromeda today – including the bulge, the bar, the huge disk, and the presence of young stars.

The presence of young blue stars in its disk, which has remained unexplained until now, is attributable to a period of intense star formation that took place after the collision. In addition, structures like the “Giant Stream” and the shells of the halo belonged to the smaller parent galaxy, whereas the diffuse clumps and the warped nature of the halo were derived from the larger one.

Their study also explains why the features attributed to the smaller galaxy have an under-abundance in heavy elements compared to the others – i.e. it was less massive so it formed fewer heavy elements and stars. This study is immensely significant when it comes to galactic formation and evolution, mainly because it is the first numerical simulation that has succeeded in reproducing a galaxy in such detail.

It is also of significance given that such a recent impact it could have left materials in the Local Group. In other words, this study could have implications that range far beyond our galactic neighborhood. It is also a good example of how increasingly sophisticated instruments are leading to more detailed observations which, when combined with increasingly sophisticated computers and algorithms, are leading to more detailed models.

One can only wonder if future extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) will draw similar conclusions about our own galaxy once it merges with Andromeda, billions of years from now. The collision and resulting features are sure to be of interest to anyone advanced species that’s around to study it!

Further Reading: Paris Observatory, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society search and more info website

What Happens When Galaxies Collide?

We don’t want to scare you, but our own Milky Way is on a collision course with Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy to our own. At some point during the next few billion years, our galaxy and Andromeda – which also happen to be the two largest galaxies in the Local Group – are going to come together, and with catastrophic consequences.

Stars will be thrown out of the galaxy, others will be destroyed as they crash into the merging supermassive black holes. And the delicate spiral structure of both galaxies will be destroyed as they become a single, giant, elliptical galaxy. But as cataclysmic as this sounds, this sort of process is actually a natural part of galactic evolution.

Astronomers have know about this impending collision for some time. This is based on the direction and speed of our galaxy and Andromeda’s. But more importantly, when astronomers look out into the Universe, they see galaxy collisions happening on a regular basis.

The Antennae galaxies. Credit: Hubble / ESA
The Antennae galaxies, a pair of interacting galaxies located 45 – 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: Hubble / ESA

Gravitational Collisions:

Galaxies are held together by mutual gravity and orbit around a common center. Interactions between galaxies is quite common, especially between giant and satellite galaxies. This is often the result of a galaxies drifting too close to one another, to the point where the gravity of the satellite galaxy will attract one of the giant galaxy’s primary spiral arms.

In other cases, the path of the satellite galaxy may cause it to intersect with the giant galaxy. Collisions may lead to mergers, assuming that neither galaxy has enough momentum to keep going after the collision has taken place. If one of the colliding galaxies is much larger than the other, it will remain largely intact and retain its shape, while the smaller galaxy will be stripped apart and become part of the larger galaxy.

Such collisions are relatively common, and Andromeda is believed to have collided with at least one other galaxy in the past. Several dwarf galaxies (such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy) are currently colliding with the Milky Way and merging with it.

However, the word collision is a bit of a misnomer, since the extremely tenuous distribution of matter in galaxies means that actual collisions between stars or planets is extremely unlikely.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and many other telescopes on the ground and in space have been used to obtain the best view yet of a collision that took place between two galaxies when the Universe was only half its current age. The astronomers enlisted the help of a galaxy-sized magnifying glass to reveal otherwise invisible detail. These new studies of the galaxy H-ATLAS J142935.3-002836 have shown that this complex and distant object looks surprisingly like the well-known local galaxy collision, the Antennae Galaxies. In this picture you can see the foreground galaxy that is doing the lensing, which resembles how our home galaxy, the Milky Way, would appear if seen edge-on. But around this galaxy there is an almost complete ring — the smeared out image of a star-forming galaxy merger far beyond. This picture combines the views from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck-II telescope on Hawaii (using adaptive optics). Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/W. M. Keck Observatory
Image obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck-II telescope, showing a collision that took place billions of years ago. Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/W. M. Keck Observatory

Andromeda–Milky Way Collision:

In 1929, Edwin Hubble revealed observational evidence which showed that distant galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way. This led him to create Hubble’s Law, which states that a galaxy’s distance and velocity can be determined by measuring its redshift – i.e. a phenomena where an object’s light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum when it is moving away.

However, spectrographic measurements performed on the light coming from Andromeda showed that its light was shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum (aka. blueshift). This indicated that unlike most galaxies that have been observed since the early 20th century, Andromeda is moving towards us.

In 2012, researchers determined that a collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy was sure to happen, based on Hubble data that tracked the motions of Andromeda from 2002 to 2010. Based on measurements of its blueshift, it is estimated that Andromeda is approaching our galaxy at a rate of about 110 km/second (68 mi/s).

At this rate, it will likely collide with the Milky Way in around 4 billion years. These studies also suggest that M33, the Triangulum Galaxy – the third largest and brightest galaxy of the Local Group – will participate in this event as well. In all likelihood, it will end up in orbit around the Milky Way and Andromeda, then collide with the merger remnant at a later date.

Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)
Images from Hubble’s ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies (at various stages in the process) far away from Earth. Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Lotz, STScI/M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley/A. Koekemoer, STScI.

Consequences:

In a galaxy collision, large galaxies absorb smaller galaxies entirely, tearing them apart and incorporating their stars. But when the galaxies are similar in size – like the Milky Way and Andromeda – the close encounter destroys the spiral structure entirely. The two groups of stars eventually become a giant elliptical galaxy with no discernible spiral structure.

Such interactions can also trigger a small amount of star formation. When the galaxies collide, it causes vast clouds of hydrogen to collect and become compressed, which can trigger a series of gravitational collapses. A galaxy collision also causes a galaxy to age prematurely, since much of its gas is converted into stars.

After this period of rampant star formation, galaxies run out of fuel. The youngest hottest stars detonate as supernovae, and all that’s left are the older, cooler red stars with much longer lives. This is why giant elliptical galaxies, the results of galaxy collisions, have so many old red stars and very little active star formation.

Despite the Andromeda Galaxy containing about 1 trillion stars and the Milky Way containing about 300 billion, the chance of even two stars colliding is negligible because of the huge distances between them. However, both galaxies contain central supermassive black holes, which will converge near the center of the newly-formed galaxy.

Two galaxies are squaring off in Corvus and here are the latest pictures.. Credit: B. Whitmore (STScI), F. Schweizer (DTM), NASA
Two galaxies colliding in the Corvus constellation. Credit: B. Whitmore (STScI), F. Schweizer (DTM),

This black hole merger will cause orbital energy to be transferred to stars, which will be moved to higher orbits over the course of millions of years. When the two black holes come within a light year of one another, they will emit gravitational waves that will radiate further orbital energy, until they merge completely.

Gas taken up by the combined black hole could create a luminous quasar or an active nucleus to form at the center of the galaxy. And last, the effects of a black hole merger could also kick stars out of the larger galaxy, resulting in hypervelocity rogue stars that could even carry their planets with them.

Today, it is understood that galactic collisions are a common feature in our Universe. Astronomy now frequently simulate them on computers, which realistically simulate the physics involved – including gravitational forces, gas dissipation phenomena, star formation, and feedback.

And be sure to check out this video of the impending galactic collision, courtesy of NASA:

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What is Galactic Cannibalism?, Watch Out! Galactic Collisions Could Snuff Out Star Formation, New Hubble Release: Dramatic Galaxy Collision, A Virtual Galactic Smash-Up!, It’s Inevitable: Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy Heading for Collision, A Cosmic Collision: Our Best View Yet of Two Distant Galaxies Merging, and Determining the Galaxy Collision Rate.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies – Episode 97: Galaxies.

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