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Updated: June 21, 2013 18:09 IST

Hubble spots galaxies in close encounter

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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured the merger of galaxies NGC 2937 and NGC 2936. Photo: NASA/ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
NASA/ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured the merger of galaxies NGC 2937 and NGC 2936. Photo: NASA/ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Hubble Space Telescope has produced a vivid image of a pair of interacting galaxies known as Arp 142.

When two galaxies stray too close to each other, they begin to interact, causing spectacular changes in both objects. In some cases the two can merge, but in others, they are ripped apart, researchers said.

Just below the centre of the image is the blue, twisted form of galaxy NGC 2936, one of the two interacting galaxies that form Arp 142 in the constellation of Hydra.

Nicknamed “the Penguin” or “the Porpoise” by amateur astronomers, NGC 2936 used to be a standard spiral galaxy before being torn apart by the gravity of its cosmic companion.

The remnants of its spiral structure can still be seen — the former galactic bulge now forms the “eye” of the penguin — around which it is still possible to see where the galaxy’s pin wheeling arms once were.

These disrupted arms now shape the cosmic bird’s “body” as bright streaks of blue and red across the image. These streaks arch down towards NGC 2936’s nearby companion, the elliptical galaxy NGC 2937, visible here as a bright white oval. The pair shows an uncanny resemblance to a penguin safeguarding its egg.

The effects of gravitational interaction between galaxies can be devastating. The pair is close enough together to interact violently, exchanging matter and causing havoc.

In the upper part of the image are two bright stars, both of which lie in the foreground of the Arp 142 pair. One of these is surrounded by a trail of sparkling blue material, which is actually another galaxy.

The galaxy is thought to be too far away to play a role in the interaction. The same is true of the galaxies peppered around the body of NGC 2936.

In the background are the blue and red elongated shapes of many other galaxies, which lie at vast distances from us, but which can all be seen by Hubble’s sharp eye.

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