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This Is What Happens When Two Galaxies Collide

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Four hundred million light years away, NGC 6240 appears in this image from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. One NASA source terms the galaxy’s shape the result of a “galactic merger,” another goes for the more colorful “titanic galaxy-galaxy collision.”

Here’s a more detailed explanation of what you’re seeing:

This bizarrely-shaped galaxy did not begin its life looking like this; its distorted appearance is a result of a galactic merger that occurred when two galaxies drifted too close to one another. This merger sparked bursts of new star formation and triggered many hot young stars to explode as supernovae. A new supernova, not visible in this image was discovered in this galaxy in 2013, named SN 2013dc.

At the center of NGC 6240 an even more interesting phenomenon is taking place. When the two galaxies came together, their central black holes did so, too. There are two supermassive black holes within this jumble, spiraling closer and closer to one another. They are currently only some 3,000 light-years apart, incredibly close given that the galaxy itself spans 300,000 light-years. This proximity secures their fate as they are now too close to escape each other and will soon form a single immense black hole.


Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University)