In the image, an uncanny pair of glowing eyes glares menacingly in our direction. The piercing “eyes” are the most prominent feature of what resembles the face of an otherworldly creature. But this is no ghostly apparition. Hubble is looking at a titanic head-on collision between two galaxies.
The image shows an outline of a face in a ring of blue stars with further groups of new stars form a nose and mouth.
Each “eye” is the bright core of a galaxy, one of which slammed into another.
The violent encounter gives the system an arresting “ring” structure for only a short amount of time, about 100 million years.
The crash pulled and stretched the galaxies’ disks of gas, dust, and stars outward.
This action formed the ring of intense star formation that shapes the nose and face.
The entire system, named AM 2026-424, is 704 million light-years from Earth.
Ring galaxies are rare; only a few hundred of them exist in the large cosmic neighbourhood.
These galaxies have had to collide at just the right orientation to create the ring.
Hubble observed this unique system as part of a “snapshot” program that takes advantage of occasional gaps in the telescope’s observing schedule to squeeze in additional pictures.
Astronomers plan to use this innovative Hubble program to take a close look at many other unusual interacting galaxies.
The goal is to compile a robust sample of nearby interacting galaxies, which could offer insight into how galaxies grew over time through galactic mergers.
By analysing these detailed Hubble observations, astronomers could then choose which systems are prime targets for follow-up with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2021.