Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 July 31
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Galaxies on a String
Credit & Copyright: Acquisition - Martin Winder, Processing - Warren Keller

Explanation: Galaxies NGC 5216 (top right) and NGC 5218 really do look like they are connected by a string. Of course, that string is a cosmic trail of gas, dust, and stars about 22,000 light-years long. Also known as Keenan's system (for its discoverer) and Arp 104, the interacting galaxy pair is some 17 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The debris trail that joins them, along with NGC 5218's comma-shaped extension and the distorted arms of NGC 5216 are a consequence of mutual gravitational tides that disrupt the galaxies as they repeatedly swing close to one another. Drawn out over billions of years, the encounters will likely result in their merger into a single galaxy of stars. Such spectacular galactic mergers are now understood to be a normal part of the evolution of galaxies, including our own Milky Way.

Tomorrow's picture: moon games

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