Shakespeare in Space #1: Slipp'd, Dissolved, and Loosed

300 million light years away from Earth
is an object known as Arp-273.

This quote originates from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, a play which explores the concept of infidelity. Seen in the Hubble image above is a growing rift between two galaxies as they drift apart. 

Of these two galaxies, the one at the top is five times as massive as the one below. Collisions between two or more galaxies are commonplace throughout the universe, with these two galaxies having clashed and diverged quite recently (in cosmic terms). They're in the midst of a cosmic breakup—a small bridge of material thousands of light-years long still tenuously connects the two.

When galaxies containing billions of stars collide with one another, it's rare that any of their respective stars actually collide head-on. Because the space between the stars is so vast, most of them pass by one another without catastrophe. 

But gravity is not so courteous. As these galaxies pass through one another like celestial ghosts, their contents are jostled around by the effect of having a galaxy's worth of mass exerting its gravitational influence on the surrounding cosmos. Spiral arms collapse, stars are ejected, and—most importantly—interstellar gasses are thrown into swirling chaos.

The larger galaxy: blue stars blooming.

All of this chaos leads to star formation. Whereas older galaxies can become somewhat dormant as new star formation gradually slows down, a galactic collision can jump-start the process and revive these aging titans. All of the blue specs of light in the above image represent clusters of stars which are newly formed, intensely hot, and radiate bright ultraviolet light. This galactic collision has sparked new life.

Just as love can re-ignite the hearts of humankind, so too can the meeting of two galaxies re-ignite the furnaces of the cosmos. But in this case, their brief coalescence was only temporary. For better or worse, the relative velocity of each respective galaxy was destined to carry them off on divergent trajectories, a union not fit for this cosmos. 

The smaller galaxy below: still hanging by a thread.

Not even gravity can counteract the inertia of two galaxies colliding and diverging at cosmic speeds. As they gradually drift further apart, the void between the galaxies will continue to grow until, eventually, they'll be left floating through the cosmos alone for eternity—or until chance brings them briefly into contact with a new cosmic companion. As Shakespeare's Troilus of Troy observes his lover Cressida philandering around with the Greek hero Diomedes, Troilus cries out:


Cressid is mine, tied with the bonds of heaven (marriage)...
[but] The bonds of heaven are slipp'd, dissolved, and loosed

Perhaps the cosmos is teaching us a lesson: that inertia will forever be a disrupting agent in the forces that join us together. At the very least, this brief joining of two celestial bodies can spark new life. At best, provide a temporary companion among this cosmos of tiny stellar islands separated by vast oceans of space.

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