In the vastness of space, it’s nice to have a neighbor. For our galaxy, the Milky Way, that’s the Large Magellanic Cloud and its sibling, the Small Magellanic Cloud. These dwarf galaxies act like satellites of our own galaxy, hanging out about 163,000 light-years away.
The European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope has observed both dwarf galaxies for the last 10 years and shared a new scintillating view of the Large Magellanic Cloud.
The telescope has helped astronomers to survey and map these nearby galaxies in an effort to understand galactic processes, evolution and the history of star birth.
VISTA’s new image is showcased in stunning near-infrared, helping to shine a light on the galaxy and cut through dust clouds that would otherwise obscure it from view. This helps individual stars stand out in the image.
Astronomers were able to study 10 million stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud, ascertaining their age and other details. They discovered that multiple spiral arms in the galaxy are composed of younger stars.
But relations between our galaxy and its neighbor may not always be so friendly.
While astronomers estimate that the massive Andromeda galaxy will collide with our own Milky Way galaxy eight billion years from now, they now believe that another collision will happen even sooner.
The Large Magellanic Cloud will catastrophically collide with the Milky Way in 2 billion years, according to a study published in January in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The impact, which they believe is long overdue, has a chance of sending our solar system “hurtling through space.”
Our galaxy is orbited by smaller satellite galaxies, the kind of dance that can go on undisturbed for billions of years. Other times, things take a violent turn, and satellite galaxies can migrate toward the Milky Way until they collide and are gobbled up.
The Large Magellanic Cloud is fairly new to orbiting the Milky Way, entering our corner of the universe 1.5 billion years ago. It’s now the brightest satellite galaxy we have. Previously, astronomers thought it would hang out in a quiet, long orbit or speed away from the gravity of the Milky Way and move on.
But new measurements suggest that this little satellite galaxy was hiding a big secret, and it has a much larger mass than expected. This means the Large Magellanic Cloud is losing energy, which will trigger it to collide with the Milky Way.
“The destruction of the Large Magellanic Cloud, as it is devoured by the Milky Way, will wreak havoc with our galaxy, waking up the black hole that lives at its center and turning our galaxy into an ‘active galactic nucleus’ or quasar,” Marius Cautun, study author and postdoctoral fellow at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said in a statement.