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What it looks like when a couple of galaxies collide

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

NASA and the European Space Agency have spotted something truly epic about 230 million light-years away from Earth.

The Hubble-produced image below shows two galaxies — each one a collection of billions of stars and untold numbers of planets — merging together.

ESA/Hubble & NASA

NASA writes:

It would be reasonable to think of this as a single abnormal galaxy, and it was originally classified as such. However, it is in fact a "new" galaxy in the process of forming. ...

As the merging process continues, individual stars are thrown out of their original orbits and placed onto entirely new paths, some very distant from the region of the collision itself. Since the stars produce the light we see, the "galaxy" now appears to have a highly chaotic shape. Eventually, this new galaxy will settle down into a stable shape, which may not resemble either of the two original galaxies.

This might be a vision of our own galaxy's future. In about 4 billion years (that's almost as long from now as the Earth is old), our Milky Way is set to collide with the Andromeda galaxy. Humanity probably won't live long enough to see it. By that time, our sun may have already boiled away our oceans.

But in the case that Earth does still exist, this is how NASA imagines the night sky might look, so long from now, when the collision is imminent.