New Hubble Image Captures a Galaxy In Perhaps Its Most Disheveled State

This irregular galaxy is a quintessential example that the universe is always changing.

An irregular galaxy, a narrow streak of stars crossed by faint dust lanes. It is surrounded by a bri...
ESA/Hubble & NASA, C. Kilpatrick

Lying some 85 million light years away, tucked deep within the Ursa Major constellation, lies the galaxy NGC 2814. Unlike the eye-catching, spiral-shaped family of galaxies (of which the Milky Way is a member), complete with its far-flung arms and defined inner core, NGC 2814 isn’t nearly as dramatic — in fact, it sort of looks like a smudge on some universal windshield.

That’s because this galaxy is in a sort of awkward state — or cosmic limbo, according to astronomers. While likely a remnant of a galactic collision millions of years ago, NGC 2814 has yet to blossom into the galaxy it will become. Instead, it currently resides as an irregular galaxy.

This irregular galaxy shines in this new Hubble image published Friday by NASA (which runs the famous observatory with the European Space Agency). Hubble took this image using its Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument, which was installed back in 2002.

While not visually stunning, these irregular galaxies catch the eyes of astronomers wanting to learn more about how galaxies evolve.

The irregular galaxy NGC 2814. The bright object on the top right of this image is actually a star in the Milky Way galaxy that is much closer to the viewer than the galaxy. NGC 2814 is located about 85 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major.

ESA/Hubble & NASA, C. Kilpatrick

An Awkward Phase, An Uncertain Future

NGC 2814 dwells in the constellation Ursa Major, or “big bear” in Latin. Observers will find the constellation with ease if they can see the ursine constellation’s hip and tail, also known as the Big Dipper, and it’s deep into Ursa Major where NGC 2814’s stellar messiness lies. When galaxies pass one another, the heftier galaxy’s gravitational pull can change the shape of the smaller one, or it might pry material loose, into space, where a new galaxy comes together from stars, gas, and dust from the original galaxies. Irregular galaxies can brim with raw material for new stars, like yarn waiting to be woven into something new.

This smudgy galaxy belongs to a group of galaxies called the Holmberg 124, and it's this cosmic neighborhood that’ll potentially determine its future. NGC 2814, along with another irregular galaxy (IC 2458) and a spiral galaxy (NGC 2820), form a trio located roughly 230,000 light years away from the very large galaxy NGC 2805.

This “in-between” galaxy in this new Hubble image will work itself out over millions of years as it adapts to many changes around it — like the invisible bridges of atomic hydrogen that connect the trio to each other — and may even transform into something new, such as an elliptical galaxy.

Like the true cosmic wallflowers that they are, irregular galaxies are endlessly fascinating, even if they aren’t where our eyes go first.

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