Friday, April 27, 2007

Spiral Metamorphosis: Merger of the Milky Way

The Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy will likely fall together and merge within a few billion years. In this speculative simulation, the two galaxies flyby one another, exciting tidal tails and bridges and collide on a second pass finally merging after several convulsions. The last remnants of the smashed spirals show up as shells and ripples surrounding a newborn elliptical galaxy.

The harsh reality of the distant universe with all of its violent interactions seems remote from our human existence and all might seem to be quiet and normal in our home the Milky Way. But it seems likely that in a mere 3 billion years, our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda and the Milky Way will fall together and have a close collision. They will likely merge and be reborn as a single giant elliptical galaxy over the course of another billion years or so. How might this metamorphosis play out and what might you see if you looked up at night over the next 4 billion years! The space between stars is so vast compared to their size that during a galaxy collision no individual stars actually collide with one another. So our sun and its family of planets will be taking a passive but exciting ride through the pair of coalescing galaxies and take on a spectacular view of the unfolding disaster in relative safety.

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