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Teasing apart galaxy collisions: Spitzer photo atlas of galactic 'train wrecks'

Date:
May 29, 2011
Source:
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Summary:
Five billion years from now, our Milky Way galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy. This will mark a moment of both destruction and creation. The galaxies will lose their separate identities as they merge into one. At the same time, cosmic clouds of gas and dust will smash together, triggering the birth of new stars. To understand our past and imagine our future, we must understand what happens when galaxies collide.

This montage shows three examples of colliding galaxies from a new photo atlas of galactic "train wrecks." The new images combine observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which observes infrared light, and NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft, which observes ultraviolet light. By analyzing information from different parts of the light spectrum, scientists can learn much more than from a single wavelength alone, because different components of a galaxy are highlighted. The panel at far left shows NGC 470 (top) and NGC 474 (bottom); at top right are NGC 3448 and UGC 6016; at bottom right are NGC 935 and IC 1801. In this representative-color image, far-ultraviolet light from GALEX is blue, 3.6-micron light from Spitzer is cyan, 4.5-micron light from Spitzer is green, and red shows light at 5.8 and 8 microns from Spitzer.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Five billion years from now, our Milky Way galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy. This will mark a moment of both destruction and creation. The galaxies will lose their separate identities as they merge into one. At the same time, cosmic clouds of gas and dust will smash together, triggering the birth of new stars.

To understand our past and imagine our future, we must understand what happens when galaxies collide. But since galaxy collisions take place over millions to billions of years, we can't watch a single collision from start to finish. Instead, we must study a variety of colliding galaxies at different stages. By combining recent data from two space telescopes, astronomers are gaining fresh insights into the collision process.

"We've assembled an atlas of galactic 'train wrecks' from start to finish. This atlas is the first step in reading the story of how galaxies form, grow, and evolve," said lead author Lauranne Lanz of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Lanz presented her findings May 25 at the 218th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The new images combine observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which observes infrared light, and NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft, which observes ultraviolet light. By analyzing information from different parts of the light spectrum, scientists can learn much more than from a single wavelength alone, because different components of a galaxy are highlighted.

GALEX's ultraviolet data captures the emission from hot young stars. Spitzer sees the infrared emission from warm dust heated by those stars, as well as from stellar surfaces. Therefore, GALEX's ultraviolet data and Spitzer's infrared data highlight areas where stars are forming most rapidly, and together permit a more complete census of the new stars.

In general, galaxy collisions spark star formation. However, some interacting galaxies produce fewer new stars than others. Lanz and her colleagues want to figure out what differences in physical processes cause these varying outcomes. Their findings will also help guide computer simulations of galaxy collisions.

"We're working with the theorists to give our understanding a reality check," said Lanz. "Our understanding will really be tested in five billion years, when the Milky Way experiences its own collision."

Lanz's co-authors are Nicola Brassington (Univ. of Hertfordshire, UK); Andreas Zezas (Univ. of Crete, Greece, and CfA); Howard Smith and Matt Ashby (CfA); Christopher Klein (UC Berkeley); and Patrik Jonsson, Lars Hernquist, and Giovanni Fazio (CfA).


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Teasing apart galaxy collisions: Spitzer photo atlas of galactic 'train wrecks'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 May 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110525164135.htm>.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (2011, May 29). Teasing apart galaxy collisions: Spitzer photo atlas of galactic 'train wrecks'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110525164135.htm
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "Teasing apart galaxy collisions: Spitzer photo atlas of galactic 'train wrecks'." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110525164135.htm (accessed July 24, 2014).

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