Astronomers using the 8-meter Gemini Telescope on Mauna Kea today released a new image of the Heron galaxy, showing its interaction with a nearby neighbor.
The new image captures the slow and intimate dance of a pair of galaxies some 160 million light-years distant and reveals the sparkle of subsequent star formation fueled by the pair’s interactions.
The two galaxies, astronomers have concluded, have already “collided” at least once. However, galactic collisions can be a lengthy process of successive gravitational encounters, which over time can morph the galaxies into exotic, yet unrecognizable forms. These galaxies, as in all galactic collisions, are engaged in a ghostly dance as the distances between the stars in each galaxy preclude actual stellar collisions and their overall shapes are deformed only by each galaxy’s gravity.
One byproduct of the turbulence caused by the interaction is the coalescence of hydrogen gas into regions of star formation. In this image, these stellar nurseries are revealed in the form of the reddish clumps scattered in a ring-like fashion in the larger galaxy (and a few in the smaller galaxy). Also visible is a dusty ring that is seen in silhouette against the backdrop of the larger galaxy. A similar ring structure is seen in this previous image from the Gemini Observatory, likely the result of another interacting galactic pair.