Two galaxies locked together in an intricate gravitational dance have created a beautiful illusion in the depths of space.
Captured in a new Hubble photo, their interaction has formed a near-symmetrical shape that has given the pair its nickname: the Angel Wing. If you look closely, the object bears an uncanny resemblance to the alarming six-winged seraphim of ancient Judaic lore.
The official name of the pair of galaxies is VV689, or MCG+03-26-016, and together they constitute an elegant example of one of the most colossal events in the Universe, a galactic merger.
Galactic mergers take place when galaxies are gravitationally drawn together across the gulfs of space-time, performing an increasingly tight orbital dance before coming together to form one big galaxy.
During these events, surprisingly few objects actually collide with each other; galaxies are mostly empty space by volume. However, the gravitational interactions can create shocks in surrounding star-forming gas that results in waves of star formation, rippling across each of the galaxies as the merger takes place.
These mergers are thought to be a vital aspect of galactic growth and evolution. Not only can the process revive star formation in otherwise relatively quiescent galaxies, it could play a role in the expansion of supermassive black holes to even more epic proportions.
Found at the heart of each galaxy, these black hole behemoths are somewhat baffling; merging with other supermassive black holes could be one pathway to their incredible size.
The Milky Way has undergone a number of collisions in its past. By identifying other galaxies undergoing the process of merging, astronomers can piece together how it occurs, which helps us understand the evolution of our own galaxy and the wider, wonderful cosmos around us.
You can download wallpaper-sized versions of the Angel Wing from the Hubble website.