Gather ’round and let me tell you about the birds and the bees — and the galaxies. Sometimes, two galaxies get together with spectacular consequences, including a baby boom of stars. NASA and the European Space Agency’s Hubble Space Telescope has gifted us with six rare views of galaxy mergers, and every one of them is a winner.
ESA released the images to celebrate the start of 2021. “These systems are excellent laboratories to trace the formation of star clusters under extreme physical conditions,” the agency said in a statement on Thursday. Star clusters are exactly what they sound like: groups of stars.
The galaxies all display signs of their wild pasts. ESA describes galaxy NGC 3256 as peculiar and distorted. NGC 3690 is a “supernova factory,” and the image of NGC 6052 shows two galaxies still in the process of colliding.
The Hubble imaging Probe of Extreme Environments and Clusters (HiPEEC) survey that delivered the images was focused on star clusters inside the galaxies and what happens to them when their host systems merge. The collisions feed into the formation of new stars, boosting the stellar birth rate.
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“The Milky Way typically forms star clusters with masses that are 10 thousand times the mass of our sun,” ESA said. “This doesn’t compare to the masses of the star clusters forming in colliding galaxies, which can reach millions of times the mass of our sun.”
The HiPEEC researchers found the large star clusters in the merged galaxies remain very luminous even after the collision action has quieted down. While the mergers may be dramatic for the galaxies involved, spectators on Earth can safely view the beautiful aftermath thanks to Hubble’s keen eyes.
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