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Cosmic effort provides best view yet of distant colliding galaxies

Behold the best look yet at a massive intergalactic train wreck in progress. It's also a glimpse at what the universe looked like when it was only half its current age.

Merging galaxies as seen through a natural magnifying glass. ESO/NASA/ESA/Keck

Astronomers on Earth used telescopes here on our home planet and in space, along with a little help from the gravity of distant stars, to capture this image, which the team behind it claims is the best yet of a huge galactic collision in progress.

To capture the image of the distant celestial object known as H-ATLAS J142935.3-002836, which is so distant that its light was originally emitted when the universe was only half its current age, astronomers took advantage of an effect known as gravitational lensing. This phenomenon is basically explained as the ability of the gravity from super massive structures like galaxies and galactic clusters to actually bend the path in which light travels, acting in much the same way as a magnifying glass.

So when multiple galaxies are aligned in just the right way, the galaxy nearer to Earth can actually give astronomers a clearer view of galaxies or other objects behind it.

"These chance alignments are quite rare and tend to be hard to identify," Hugo Messias, the lead author of a study on the colliding galaxies, said in a release. "But, recent studies have shown that by observing at far-infrared and millimetre wavelengths we can find these cases much more efficiently."

Multiple telescopes all took aim at the distant object to gather as much data as possible, including Hubble and Spitzer in space, ALMA in Chile, the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

The result is the above view of what appears to be two disc-shaped galaxies colliding with each other and creating numerous new stars in the process. A diagonal Milky Way-like band can also be seen overlaid on top of the brighter ring shape. This band is the nearer galaxy that is doing the gravitational lensing magic to give us a more vivid view of the ring-shaped collision far behind it.

Or, to describe it more simply, the whole thing is just awesome. Well done, science.