Astronomers have created a ‘galactic train wreck’ atlas image depicting how a variety of galaxies around Earth will collide in five billion years time.
The collision between the Milky Way – Earth’s galaxy – and the Andromeda Galaxy is predicted to take place in between three and five billion years.
The ‘train wreck’ style merger of galaxies, is said by experts to reveal ‘how galaxies form, grow and evolve’.
The atlas of galaxy collision was created using data from NASA’s Spitzer and Galex space telescopes.
The Galex (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) telescope observes in ultraviolet light, which captures emission from hot young stars.
Spitzer sees the infrared emission from warm dust heated by those stars, as well as from stellar surfaces.
Some galaxies, such as the NGC 935 and the IC 1801, have already begun their galactic ‘smash-up’.
But the collision between Earth’s Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy is not expected to take place for several billion years.
The collision is likely to trigger the birth of stars from smashed together clouds of cosmic gas and dust.
Lauranne Lanz of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: ‘This atlas is the first step in reading the story of how galaxies form, grow, and evolve.
‘We’re working with the theorists to give our understanding a reality check.
‘Our understanding will really be tested in five billion years when the Milky Way experiences its own collision.’
The combined data highlight areas where stars are forming most rapidly, and together permit a more complete census of the new stars.
In general, galaxy collisions trigger star formation, though some mergers trigger few stars than others.
Lanz and her colleagues want to figure out what differences in physical processes cause these varying outcomes, which will help guide computer simulations of these smashups.