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Two Galaxies Collide To Form One Luminous, Starburst Galaxy

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Five hundred million years ago, two galaxies teeming with gases and roughly of the same mass crashed into each other, forming a peculiar new galaxy that served as host for the birth of thousands of new stars. NASA has released a brand new, high-definition image of the collision on May 31.

How Is A Starburst Galaxy Formed?

By most accounts, NGC-3256 is an unusual galaxy. It is classified as a starburst galaxy, which is characterized by a rapid rate of star formation followed by a quick decline. Starburst galaxies are far more common during the early ages of the universe. Astronomers have recorded observations of starbursts galaxies that are 12 billion light-years away.

In comparison, NGC-3256 is a much younger formation. The galaxy is approximately 100 million light-years away, making it one of the most promising candidates for scientists to study the behavior of starburst galaxies and the formation of stars.

The latest image of NGC-3256 was taken by the fourth-generation Wide Field Camera 3 and the third-generation Advanced Camera for Surveys. Both are part of NASA/ESA's Hubble Space Telescope and are two of the two most sophisticated instruments to take high-definition images of objects in space.

One Of The Brightest Objects In The Sky

In the southern sky is the constellation Vela, a celestial pattern of the sails of a ship which is home to NGC-3256. The galaxy is part of the Hydra-Centaurus Supercluster and is approximately the size of our own Milky Way.

At the center of NGC-3256 sits around 1,000 clusters of young blue stars, which were formed due to the frenzied collision of dust and gases that resulted from the two galaxies merging into each other.

As a result, the galaxy has an extremely bright center, thanks to the brilliant young stars forming in clusters in the middle. As stars form, they emit a lot of ultraviolet light. The dust from the collision absorbs this light and emits it back out as infrared rays. This is why stars in their early years are very bright, making a starburst galaxy one of the most luminous infrared objects in the universe.

The Death Of A Starburst Galaxy

NGC-3256 still bears evidence of the collision. Data from the Hubble Space Telescope shows it currently has two nuclei, each of which formed the center of the two galaxies that now comprise it.

At the center of the galaxy is a web of dark dust and a disk of dust that spins around both nuclei. The southern nucleus is obscured by the tangle of dust and can only be observed with the use of X-ray, infrared, and radio waves.  

In another 100 million years, both nuclei will fuse to form one central point for the galaxy, and NGC-3256 itself will mature and turn into an elliptical galaxy.

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