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Atom smasher in deep space

Atoms-for-Peace galaxy

The oddly shaped and oddly named Atoms-for-Peace galaxy is actually a pair of galaxies experience a long, drawn-out merger.

  • Oddly named Atoms-for-Peace galaxy
  • It’s actually two galaxies colliding
  • Named after a speech by former US President Eisenhower

A spectacular new image of the famous Atoms-for-Peace galaxy (NGC 7252) has been released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

This galactic pile-up, formed by the collision of two galaxies, provides an excellent opportunity for astronomers to study how galaxy mergers affect the evolution of the Universe.

Atoms-for-Peace is the curious name given to a pair of interacting and merging galaxies that lie around 220 million light-years away. It is also known as NGC 7252 and Arp 226 and is just bright enough to be seen by amateur telescopes as a very faint small fuzzy blob.

This new, deep image was produced by ESO’s Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Galaxy collisions are long drawn-out events that last hundreds of millions of years.

The picture of Atoms-for-Peace represents a snapshot of its collision, with the chaos in full flow. The results of the intricate interplay of gravitational forces can be seen in the tails made from streams of stars, gas and dust.

The image also shows incredible shells that formed as gas and stars were ripped out of the colliding galaxies and wrapped around their merged, single core.

While a lot of material was ejected into deep space, other regions were compressed, sparking bursts of star formation. The result was the formation of hundreds of very young star clusters, which are now around 50 to 500 million years old. They’re also speculated to be the forerunners of what astronomers call “globular star clusters”…vast collections of hundreds of thousands or millions of stars, formed into a spherical grouping.

Close-up of the Atoms-for-Peace galaxy's core

A Hubble close-up of the Atoms-for-Peace galaxy's core. The bluish points swirling around the core are huge clusters of hot, young stars.

Atoms-for-Peace may be a harbinger of our own galaxy’s fate. Astronomers predict that in three or four billion years the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy will collide, much as has happened with Atoms-for-Peace.

But there’s no need to panic—the distance between stars within a galaxy is vast, so it is unlikely that our Sun will end up in a head-on collision with another star during the merger.

See the full-size, high-resolution version here (new window or tab)

And how did the Atoms-for-Peace galaxy pairing get its unusual name?

In December 1953, US President Eisenhower gave a speech that was dubbed Atoms for Peace. The theme was promoting nuclear power for peaceful purposes—a particularly hot topic at the time.

This speech and the associated conference made waves in the scientific community and beyond to such an extent that NGC 7252 was named the Atoms-for-Peace galaxy.

In many ways, this is oddly appropriate—the curious shape that we can see is the result of two galaxies merging to produce something new and grand, a little like what occurs in nuclear fusion. Furthermore, the giant loops resemble a textbook diagram of electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus.

Adapted from information issued by ESO / NASA /  ESA.

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