NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and W. Keel (University of Alabama)

As huge as the Universe is, chance alignments between galaxies often happen as in this image of NGC 3314 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Zoom into the spiral arms of these two galaxies. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

Looking close at these two galaxies and it appears they are colliding. But it’s just a trick of perspective. The galaxies are in a line from our vantage point although between them there are millions of light-years of nothingness. Scientists looking at the image looked at the shapes of the galaxies to help determine whether the two are interacting. Usually the huge tug of gravity in a galaxy pushes and pulls the spiral arms of another galaxy until it is warped. Like soft taffy, gravity can stretch and squish a galaxy. Spiral arms get bent or stretched into long tails that appear to fly off into space.

One thing this alignment allows is for astronomers to study in detail the spiral arms of the galaxy in front. The dark dust lanes of NGC 3314A stand out clearly in the light of NGC 3314B in the background. Zoom into these dust lanes. NGC 3314A has many hot, young blue stars in the outer reaches of its spiral arms. If we look to the right of this galaxy, it does appear warped and full of new stars. This does point to an encounter with another galaxy in the past.

Look also for many other galaxies dotting the background of the image. These galaxies are hundreds of millions of light-years beyond this pair.

NGC 3314A lies about 117 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Hydra, the snake. NGC 3314B is a bit farther away at 140 million light-years. Astronomers determined in 1999 that this galaxy was actually two separate galaxies.

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