This artist's concept illustrates one of the largest smash-ups of galaxies ever observed. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope spotted the four galaxies shown here (yellow blobs) in the process of tangling and ultimately merging into a single gargantuan galaxy. Though the galaxies appear to be fairly intact, gravitational disturbances have caused them to distort and twist, flinging stars (white dots) everywhere like sand. Other nearby galaxies can be seen as small, bluish blobs.
The so-called "quadruple merger" is the largest known merger between galaxies of a similar size. While three of galaxies are about the size of our Milky Way, the fourth (center of image) is three times as big. All four of the galaxies are blob-shaped ellipticals instead of spirals like the Milky Way.
The plume shown emanating from the biggest galaxy contains billions of stray stars -- almost three times as many as are in the Milky Way -- kicked out during the merger. About half of the stars in the plume will fall back and join the new galaxy, making it one of the biggest galaxies in the universe.
The quadruple merger is part of a giant galaxy cluster, called CL0958+4702, located nearly five billion light-years away.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
+ High-resolution JPEG (1.4Mb)