NASA captures stunning galaxy collision 60M light-years away

The Chandra X-ray Observatory delivers astrophysicists another breathtaking first by capturing a dwarf galaxy smashing into a large spiral one.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
2 min read
A composite image of a massive galaxy collision that resulted in a burst of 6 million-degree hot gas. X-ray: NASA/CXC/Huntingdon Institute for X-ray Astronomy/G. Garmire; Optical: ESO/VLT

Now this is what it's like when galaxies collide.

Or at the very least, this is what it looks like. The visual effects of the collision -- which generated an immense shock wave that produced a spiral plume of 6 million-degree hot gas -- were captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, visible here in purple. The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope contributed to the image's impressive palate with optical observations revealing the galaxy in blue and white.

Such a shock wave, likened to a sonic boom, won't be felt anywhere near Earth, which is 60 million light-years away from the large spiral galaxy NGC 1232 that was rammed by a smaller, dwarf one.

The eye-popping visual result marks the first time such a collision has been captured in X-rays and may shed light on the cloudy subject of galaxy formation through collisions like this. It is believed that the shock wave may have caused an uptick in the formation of bright and massive stars, which would explain vibrant X-ray emissions picked up due to heavy star winds and supernovas as the new stars rapidly evolve.

As for how heavy this beautiful gas cloud is, the two-dimensional image is not enough to suss that out because it's unclear whether the gas is concentrated across a thin, flat area or distributed over a large, spherical one. In the event it is thin, NASA says the mass would equal 40,000 suns, while a uniformly spread cloud could have a mass to the tune of 3 million suns.

The collision will go on for about 50 million years, and should keep glowing for tens to hundreds of millions of years. Studying such concentrations of hot gas around the universe could lead to more understanding about collisions and their importance.

NASA did concede that there is a slight chance a galaxy collision did not take place. "An alternative explanation of the X-ray emission is that the hot gas cloud could have been produced by supernovas and hot winds from large numbers of massive stars, all located on one side of the galaxy," the statement reads. But "the lack of evidence of expected radio, infrared, or optical features argues against this possibility."