Hubble Telescope watches galactic tug-of-war to the death

Hubble view of galactic tup-of-war

The Hubble Space Telescope snapped an image of three far-ff galaxies locked in a gravitational tug-of-war that ultimately could result in the death of one of them.

NASA said the three galaxies are playing a game of gravitational give-and-take that might ultimately lead to their merger into one enormous entity tens to hundreds of times as massive as our own Milky Way.

The galaxies are battling about 100 million light-years away in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish), NASA said.

The galaxies - NGC 7173, NCG 7174 and NGC 7176 - are part of the Hickson Compact Group 90, named after astronomer Paul Hickson, who first catalogued these small clusters of galaxies in the 1980s.  The NGC 7174 is galaxy is apparently losing the battle, NASA said, barely clinging to independent existence as it is ripped apart by its neighbors.

According to NASA, NGC 7173 and NGC 7176 appear to be smooth, normal elliptical galaxies without much gas and dust. However NGC 7174 is a mangled spiral galaxy, barely clinging to independent existence as it is ripped apart by its close neighbors.

Ultimately, astronomers believe that the stars in NGC 7174 will be redistributed into a giant 'island universe', tens to hundreds of times as massive as our Milky Way.

Hubble has been in the news lately out of concern for its safety and age.  On the safety front, some experts were worried it could be hit by space debris from the recent collision of orbiting Iridium and Russian military satellites.

Launched in 1990, Hubble is overdue for an upgrade - its last in fact.  Originally scheduled for last October, the platform is now scheduled to be serviced - getting new instruments, better protective wrapping and power tweaks - in May. This upgrade should keep the system operational until at least 2013, NASA said.

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