An image from the European Southern Observatory, reveals two galaxies, NGC 3169 and NGC 3166, meeting in intergalactic space. What kind of cosmic drama ensues in these close encounters of galaxies?

Image of interacting galaxies

Battling galaxies: This image of a remarkable galactic dynamic duo is based on data selected by Igor Chekalin for ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography competition. (Image credit: ESO)

Once the Universe was a quiet and peaceful place. Galaxies serenely sailed through the void in splendid isolation. Today the picture is different. Instead galaxies career across cosmos, sometimes colliding or sometimes passing and tearing other apart, spilling stars into the intergalactic wastes. Some will be hoovered up by the “winner”, while others wander the darkness for the rest of eternity.

The European Southern Observatory’s magnificent 2.2-metre telescope installed at the La Silla Observatory in Chile has captured one of these slow motion cataclysms. About 70 million light years away in the constellation Sextans (The Sextant), there is a galactic couple experiencing a dangerous mutual attraction.  Gravity has pulled billions of stars from their courses in NGC 3169 (left) and ripped apart the dark lanes of dust in its neighbour NGC 3166 (right). Just 50 000 light years apart, these galaxies are tearing each other to pieces.  The smaller galaxy to the lower right, NGC 3165, is a bystander to this cosmic drama.

When it is complete, this battle will leave both galaxies battered and disfigured. Yet this event is more creative than destructive. Nebulae are shaken and stirred, promoting starbirth. One day, strange suns will shine on worlds conceived in this violent encounter.


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