Our "Cannibalistic" Neighbor Andromeda Could Eat Milky Way, Scientists Say

Andromeda has set its sights on the Milky Way galaxy.
Chris Young

A galactic feast could take place in approximately 4 billion years, astronomers say. The main course? Us. Or our galaxy to be more precise.

The scientists have predicted that the closest neighbor to our Milky Way galaxy, the violent Andromeda, will eventually collide with us, and potentially consume us.


The Milky Way's fate

While working on new research, astronomers discovered faint remnants of small galaxies Andromeda had consumed 10 billion years ago during its formation. 

"The Milky Way is on a collision course with Andromeda in about four billion years," Dougal Mackey, author of the new study at the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said in a press release.

"Knowing what kind of a monster our galaxy is up against is useful in finding out the Milky Way's ultimate fate."

Our "Cannibalistic" Neighbor Andromeda Could Eat Milky Way, Scientists Say
Andromeda galaxy from Palomar Observatory. Source: NASA

The stars orbiting Andromeda gave the researchers clues about the ancient collisions with other galaxies. The team studied dense groups of stars, known as globular clusters, to reveal how many years ago galaxies were consumed by Andromeda.

"By tracing the faint remains of these smaller galaxies with embedded star clusters, we've been able to recreate the way Andromeda drew them in and ultimately enveloped them at the different times," Dr. Mackey said.

Understanding our own galaxy

Knowing more about Andromeda's behavior can teach us more about our own galaxy — the Milky Way has also eaten other galaxies throughout the history of the universe.

But what will happen when the collision takes place?

"I think it's unlikely the Earth will be physically destroyed by the collision with Andromeda," Mackey told CNN. "It's not out of the question, but in general the stars in galaxies are spaced sufficiently sparsely that direct collisions between stars are rare."

"However, it's possible that the Sun could be thrown out of the merged Andromeda and Milky Way system by the collision, into intergalactic space, and/or a nearby close passage with another star could perturb the Earth's orbit such that the Earth can no longer support life," he explained.

What the scientists are most interested in, however, is figuring out new mysteries that have arisen from their investigations. For example, two of the galaxy consumptions come from completely different directions. The stellar investigation continues.

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