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Hubble records fireworks when galaxies collide

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Bird in space? No, it's a galactic collision photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope  

(CNN) -- NASA's flagship space observatory has captured a brilliant light display ignited by a violent encounter between two galaxies, scientists said Thursday.

Bright blue and white streaks along the top and right edge of the large spiral galaxy in the central part of the Hubble Space Telescope image mark the path taken by a passing smaller galaxy. The tip of the latter appears in the lower right corner of a more detailed picture, which can be viewed by clicking on the "larger" icon.

The luminous trail reveals the location of new stars in the large galaxy created by the cosmic crash. Dust and gas clouds in both galaxies rammed into each other during the encounter, compressing and heating up the interstellar clouds enough in some cases to spark the formation of hot blue stars through gravitational collapse.

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Hubble scientists, who released the image Thursday, likened the brightest patch in the image to a bird's head, leaning over to snatch up some tasty prey.

"We used to call it the golf club but then we turned it upside down and it looked like a bird," said Hubble scientist Keith Noll of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

The galactic crash site is about 206 million light years away, in the direction of the constellation Lyra.

Curiously, when galaxies collide, existing stars that comprise most of their luminous mass rarely run into each other. This case offers no exception, said Hubble scientists.

The reason: stars are tiny compared to the distance separating them from one another, making the chances of a direct encounter remote. In our galaxy, for example, the nearest star to our sun is 4.3 light years away: Proxima Centauri, which is part of the Alpha Centauri triple system.

Scientists with the Hubble Heritage created the image using archive data recorded by the Hubble telescope in 1996. The orbiting observatory -- a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency -- has taken thousands of revealing pictures of the universe since it began operations in 1990.



RELATED STORIES:
Hubble images show delicate wisps of starstuff
October 11, 2000
Hubble reveals secrets of a celestial 'Blob'
October 9, 2000
Young stars belch fiery gas in Hubble time-lapse movies
September 21, 2000
Nebulous 'Spirograph' astounds Hubble astronomers
September 11, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Heritage Project Homepage
NASA


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