Hubble observes five galaxies in a gravitational dance just before turning 32

The iconic space observatory has been going strong since 1990.
Chris Young
The Hickson Compact Group 40.NASA/ESA/STScI

The Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating its 32nd birthday.

The iconic space observatory was launched on April 24, 1990, and scientists marked the occasion with a fascinating look at a close-knit group of five galaxies, called the Hickson Compact Group 40, a press statement reveals.

Five galaxies locked in a gravitational dance

The galaxies are located so close to each other, that they will eventually fall into each other and merge into one massive whole. The group contains three spiral-shaped galaxies, an elliptical galaxy, and a lenticular (lens-like) galaxy.

Galaxy groupings aren't unheard of, but this web of galaxies is surprisingly compact. They are all caught in a gravitational dance and would fit in an area less than twice the diameter of the Milky Way's stellar disk. Scientists estimate that the galaxy group will merge gradually over the course of approximately 1 billion years.

Almost all of these galaxies have a compact radio source at their core, which may indicate the presence of a supermassive black hole. X-ray observations have shown gravitational interactions between the galaxies, characterized by hot gas traveling from one galaxy towards the center of another.

Hubble has made more than 1.5 million observations

Astronomers have cataloged over 100 compact galaxy groups over the last few decades. Scientists seek them out in the night sky as the close interaction between several complex networks can reveal new insight into star and galaxy formation.

Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has made more than 1.5 million observations and counting, leading to the publication of 18,000 scientific papers. This month, NASA announced that scientists had used Hubble observations to confirm the size of the Bernardinelli-Bernstein comet, confirming that it is the largest icy comet nucleus ever observed by astronomers.

In recent months and years, Hubble has faced a number of technical problems, leading scientists to believe it is nearing the end of its lifespan. It's difficult, however, to predict exactly when Hubble will cease operations, and the iconic space observatory still has some gas left in the tank.

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