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Hubble sees stars after galactic collision

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The right image shows the heart of the prototypical starburst galaxy M82 and the smaller picture at upper left shows the entire galaxy  

(CNN) -- With exceptional focus, NASA's foremost orbiting observatory has zoomed in on gigantic star clusters that formed when galaxies collided.

The Hubble Space Telescope image, released Wednesday, records a more chaotic time in the universe when galaxies crashed into one another with greater frequency.

Astronomers used the picture to reconstruct one particular violent encounter and determine when it occurred. The small galaxy M82 smacked into its much larger neighbor M81 about 600 million years ago during an event that lasted about 100 million years.

Hubble scientists determined the approximate time period by studying the debris left in the smaller galaxy in the wake of the encounter -- more than 100 bright and compact star clusters, each of which contains about 100,000 stars. They are considerably younger than other clusters in the region.

"The last tidal encounter between M82 and M81 ... had a major impact on what was probably an otherwise normal, quiescent disk galaxy," said Richard de Grijs of Cambridge University in Great Britain, in a statement.

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"It caused a concentrated burst of star formation," added de Grijs, who leads an international team of astronomers in the M82 study. The results are published in the February 2001 issue of the Astronomical Journal.

The super-sized star clusters could be the first identified specimens of young globular clusters. Astronomers have so far detected only ancient globular clusters that formed billions of years ago in newborn galaxies.

"Our results support other observations, mostly made with Hubble, that the formation of globular clusters does indeed continue today," de Grijs said.

A bright galaxy only 12 million light-years from Earth, M82 is situated in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.



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RELATED SITES:
Hubble Space Telescope News
Space Telescope Science Institute

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