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 February of 2012, astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope discovered a cluster of young, blue stars in the spectacular edge-on galaxy (ESO 243-49 above), encircling the first intermediate-mass black hole ever found. The presence of the star cluster suggests that the black hole was once at the core of a now-disintegrated dwarf galaxy.
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.