Milky Way Set For Collision With Nearby Galaxy

By Amir Khan on June 1, 2012 12:32 PM EDT

Milky Way
The Milky Way will collide with the nearby Andromeda galaxy in 4 billion years, researchers said (Photo: Creative Commons)

Our galaxy is on a collision course with the nearby Andromeda galaxy, according to a new study that will be published in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal. The collision will form a new elliptical-shaped galaxy, as opposed to the current spiral-armed shape of the Milky Way.

"We do know of other galaxies in the local universe around us that are in the process of colliding and merging," Roeland van der Marel, a researcher with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, told MSNBC. "However, what makes the future merger of the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way so special is that it will happen to us."

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The collision will not occur for over 4 billion years, but if humans are still around when it occurs, it will completely change the appearance of the night sky.

"Today, the Andromeda Galaxy appears to us on the sky as a small fuzzy object that was first seen by ancient astronomers more than one thousand years ago," Marel told BBC News. "Few things fascinate humans more than to know what our cosmic destiny and future fate will be. The fact that we can predict that this small fuzzy object will one day come to engulf and enshroud our Sun and Solar System is a truly remarkable and fascinating finding."

Researchers measured the trajectory of both the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy using the Hubble Telescope, and found that the two are on track for a direct hit.

"Because Andromeda is getting closer to us, astronomers have speculated for a long time whether it might collide with our Milky Way and whether the galaxies might merge together," Morel told the Las Angeles Times "However, to know if this will in fact happen, it's necessary to know not only how Andromeda is moving in our direction, but also what its sideways motion is. Because that will determine whether Andromeda will miss us at a distance - or whether it might be heading straight for us."

Researchers said our decedents will not have to worry, as the merger will not disturb the Earth. Stars in both galaxies will remain far apart, and the solar system will not be destroyed, they said. 

Usually, looking at stars and other celestial body's means looking into the past, researchers said. These findings give researchers the ability to look into the future -- something that is not usually possible. They credited the Hubble telescope as giving them new technology to be able to do so.

"What's really exciting about the current measurements is, it's not about historical astronomy; it's not about looking back in time, understanding the expansion of the universe," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate and a former astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions that repaired Hubble , told MSNBC. "It's looking forward in time, which is another very human story. We like to know about our past - where did we come from? We very much like to know where we're going."

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