The colliding galaxies sit at the centre of NASA’s official portrait of Stephan’s Quintet. Also known as the Hickson Compact group 92, the image deceptively highlights a cluster of five galaxies. Deceptively, because subsequent studies have found the top-left object, NGC 7320, is seven times closer to Earth than the rest of the group.
The quintet’s most interesting features, however, are in the dead centre of the photo.
There, a pair of galaxies dubbed NGC 7318A and 7318B are falling towards each other, due to the tug of their gravities.
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A similar fate will one day await our Milky Way and the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy.
NASA said: “A clash among members of a famous galaxy quintet reveals an assortment of stars across a wide colour range, from young, blue stars to ageing, red stars.”
Surrounding the galaxies are visible bands of pink hydrogen clouds where young stars are born.
The bright blue clusters are young stars that are less than 10 million years old.
And to the right of the galaxies is a region of intergalactic space where new star clusters are also taking shape.
Astronomers estimated these galaxies sit about 290 million light-years from Earth – 1,704,801,400,000,000,000,000 miles away.
In other words, the light from the galaxies travelled towards us for 290 million years.
Bursts of star formation are occurring in the galaxy’s disk
NGC 7320 is the one exception as it sits about 40 million light-years away.
If you look closely, you will see three of the galaxies in the cluster have distorted shapes, elongated spiral arms and long gassy tails.
NASA said: “These interactions have sparked a frenzy of star birth in the central pair of galaxies.
“This drama is being played out against a rich backdrop of faraway galaxies.”
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The top-right galaxy is the barred spiral NGC 7319.
And although most of the quintet is too far away to make out individual stars, you can see red and blue clusters of stars around the galaxy’s core.
The galaxy at the bottom left is NGC 7317, a spiral galaxy that is least affected by the ongoing interaction.
In the upper left is the dwarf galaxy NGC 7320, where you can make out individual stars because it is much closer.
NASA said: “Bursts of star formation are occurring in the galaxy’s disk, as seen by the blue and pink dots.”
The galactic cluster was discovered in 1877 by astronomer Edouard M. Stephan.
According to NASA, it was the first-ever compact group discovered.
NASA’s Hubble snapped the image in visible and near-infrared wavelengths of light.
The US space agency said: “The composite image was made by using filters that isolate light from the blue, green, and infrared portions of the spectrum, as well as emission from ionized hydrogen.”
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