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The Cosmos with NGC 3256

Marked by an unusually bright central region, swirling dust lanes, and far flung tidal tails, peculiar NGC 3256 is the aftermath of a truly cosmic collision. The 500 million year old clash of two separate galaxies spans some 100 thousand light-years in this sharp Hubble view. Of course when two galaxies collide, individual stars rarely do. Giant galactic clouds of molecular gas and dust do interact though, and produce spectacular bursts of star formation. In this galaxy clash, the two original spiral galaxies had similar masses. Their disks are no longer distinct and the two galactic nuclei are hidden by obscuring dust. On the timescale of a few hundred million years the nuclei will likely also merge as NGC 3256 becomes a single large elliptical galaxy. NGC 3256 itself is nearly 100 million light-years distant toward the southern sailing constellation Vela. The frame includes many even more distant background galaxies and spiky foreground stars.

This image, taken with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), both installed on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the peculiar galaxy NGC 3256. The galaxy is about 100 million light-years from Earth and is the result of a past galactic merger, which created its distorted appearance. As such, NGC 3256 provides an ideal target to investigate starbursts that have been triggered by galaxy mergers. Another image of NGC 3256 was already released in 2008, as part of a collection of interacting galaxies, created for Hubble’s 18th birthday.

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