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Galaxies in death waltz spied by Hubble

By Richard Stenger

Seyfert's Sextet is actually four nearby galaxies, a drifting stellar stream and a distant star group.
Seyfert's Sextet is actually four nearby galaxies, a drifting stellar stream and a distant star group.

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Seyfert's Sextet is named for astronomer Carl Seyfert, who discovered the galactic grouping in the late 1940s.

(CNN) -- Several galaxies appear to be dancing toward mutual destruction in a newly released image from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The gravitational interaction of the closely packed galaxies is warping their shapes and tearing apart their stars, an international team of astronomers said this week.

The galactic group is known as Seyfert's Sextet, suggesting that six galaxies are taking part in the deadly dance. There are in fact only four.

The small edge-on spiral galaxy in the center of the image is actually five times farther away than the group. An incidental alignment makes it seem like it belongs.

The sixth "galaxy" in the sextet, below to the right, is actually a long stream of stars torn from one of the other galaxies.

The main group of galaxies is some 190 million light-years away in the constellation Serpens. It is only 100,000 light-years across, taking up less volume than our Milky Way galaxy.

"Three of the galaxies ... bear the telltale marks of close interactions with each other, or perhaps with an interloper galaxy not pictured here," Pennsylvania State University and University of Manitoba researchers said in a statement.

"Their distorted shapes suggest that gravitational forces have reshaped them. The halos around the galaxies indicate that stars have been ripped away."

Part of the group, the almost face-on spiral galaxy at the top center of the image, appears to be hardly disturbed, except for a slight bend in its disk.

Such large intergalactic collisions usually spark the formation of many stars. But Seyfert's Sextet -- captured by Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera in 2000 -- lacks such young stellar clusters, which appear as bright blue regions in space images.

"Astronomers may be seeing the sextet at the beginning of its interaction, before much has happened," the scientists said.

"This will not be the case for long, though. The galaxies ... will continue to interact. And eventually, billions of years from now, all four may merge and form a single galaxy."

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