"Cosmic collision" shows the fate of the Milky Way

One of the most spectacular events in the universe, a galactic merger, was observed 60 million light-years away near the constellation Virgo. New photos showing two galaxies about to collide as they were about 60 million years ago, and scientists say it's a preview of what's to come for our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
This image from the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii shows a pair of interacting spiral galaxies - NGC 4568 (bottom) and NGC 4567 (top) - as they begin to collide and merge. The galaxies will eventually form a single elliptical galaxy in about 500 million years. / Photo credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA
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The International Gemini Observatory's Gemini North Telescope has captured the upcoming merger. The centers of the two spiral galaxies NGC 4568 and NGC 4567 were 20,000 light-years apart when the photos were taken - about the same distance from Earth to the center of the Milky Way - but as they encircle each other, the magnitude of the collision is unleashed.
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"Their dueling gravitational forces will unleash bursts of intense star formation, wildly distorting their once majestic structures," the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab, which operates the observatory, said earlier this week.
The galaxies will spend millions of years swinging past each other in tightening loops, creating "long streams of stars and gas." They will eventually be so intertwined that they will exist as a single galaxy, "emerging from chaos" without the gas or dust needed to create stars, NOIRLab said.
And as poignant as the collision is to watch, it's also a grim preview of the fate of our galaxy -- in about 5 billion years, the Milky Way will likely have its own galactic merger with the Andromeda galaxy.
This series of photo illustrations shows the predicted merger of our Milky Way with neighboring Andromeda Galaxy. From top left, which represents the present, to bottom right, which represents 7 billion years in the future after the galaxy merger. / Photo credits: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T Hallas and A Mellinger
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NASA announced such a fate in 2012 when the Hubble Space Telescope found that Andromeda was "relentlessly falling toward the Milky Way" at about 250,000 miles per hour -- fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in an hour. However, NASA said the stars in each of the galaxies will be far enough apart that they don't collide with each other and are instead thrown into different orbits around the new center of the new, combined galaxy.
Astronomers believe these types of events create elliptical galaxies shaped like extended circles with minimal dust or gas to create stars, often making them more obtuse than other galaxies. Once NGC 4568 and 4567 complete their combined transformation, NOIRLab predicts they will look like Messier 89, another elliptical galaxy in Virgo.
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