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News Release 36 of 50

December 12, 2002 12:00 AM (EST)

News Release Number: STScI-2002-22

Hubble Watches Galaxies Engage in Dance of Destruction

December 12, 2002: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is witnessing a grouping of galaxies engaging in a slow dance of destruction that will last for billions of years. The galaxies are so tightly packed together that gravitational forces are beginning to rip stars from them and distort their shapes. Those same gravitational forces eventually could bring the galaxies together to form one large galaxy. The name of this grouping, Seyfert's Sextet, implies that six galaxies are participating in the action. But only four galaxies are on the dance card. The small face-on spiral with the prominent arms [center] of gas and stars is a background galaxy almost five times farther away than the other four. Only a chance alignment makes it appear as if it is part of the group. The sixth member of the sextet isn't a galaxy at all but a long "tidal tail" of stars [below, right] torn from one of the galaxies.

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Q & A: Understanding the Discovery

  1. 1. What does the picture reveal about these interacting galaxies?


  2. This densely packed grouping spans just 100,000 light-years, occupying less volume than the Milky Way galaxy. Each galaxy is about 35,000 light-years wide. Three of the galaxies [the elliptical galaxy, second from top, and the two spiral galaxies at the bottom] bear the telltale marks of close interactions with each other, or perhaps with an interloper galaxy not pictured here. Their distorted shapes suggest that gravitational forces have reshaped them. The halos around the galaxies indicate that stars have been ripped away. The galaxy at bottom, center, has a 35,000 light-year-long tail of stars flowing from it. The tail may have been pulled from the galaxy about 500 million years ago.

    Although part of the group, the nearly edge-on spiral galaxy at top, center, remains relatively undisturbed, except for the slight warp in its disk. Most of its stars have remained within its galactic boundaries.

 
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Image Credit: NASA, J. English (U. Manitoba), S. Hunsberger, S. Zonak, J. Charlton, S. Gallagher (PSU), and L. Frattare (STScI)

Science Credit: NASA, C. Palma, S. Zonak, S. Hunsberger, J. Charlton, S. Gallagher, P. Durrell (The Pennsylvania State University) and J. English (University of Manitoba)