Five billion light-years from earth, there's a massive galactic pileup unfolding in slow motion. As four clusters of galaxies plow into each other, thousands of individual galaxies are colliding—creating huge amounts of cosmic chaos and a lot of energy.
New images of this phenomenon—one of the largest galactic mergers on record—suggest it's also producing more than just pretty pictures. It's also serving as quite possibly the largest particle accelerator of all time, besting the exquisitely engineered Large Hadron Collider one million times over.
"In the Andromeda galaxy we have the unique combination of a global yet detailed view of a galaxy similar to our own. We have lots of detail in our own Milky Way, but not the global, external perspective," said study co-author Prof Puragra Guhathakurta of the University of California, Santa Cruz. ...
"The comparison to the Milky Way revealed substantial differences suggesting that Andromeda has had a more violent accretion history in the recent past. Even the most well ordered Andromeda stars are not as well ordered as the stars in the Milky Way's disk."
Although they look far apart, M31 and M33 are locked in a mutual gravitational embrace. Radio astronomers have found indications of a bridge of neutral hydrogen gas that could connect the two, evidence of a closer encounter in the past. Based on measurements, gravitational simulations currently predict that the Milky Way, M31, and M33 will all undergo mutual close encounters and potentially mergers, billions of years in the future.