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💫M81 and M82

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Beautiful, detailed Hubble images of the centre of the prototypical starburst galaxy M82 point to a violent past. An ancient burst of star formation that gave birth to more than 100 super star clusters is linked to a violent encounter with the galaxy's large neighbour, M81. Studying galactic interactions is like sifting through the forensic evidence at a crime scene. Astronomers wade through the debris of a violent encounter, collecting clues so they can reconstruct the celestial crime to determine when it happened. Take the case of M82, a small, nearby galaxy that long ago bumped into its larger neighbour, M81. When did this violent encounter occur? New infrared and visible-light pictures from NASA & ESA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal for the first time important details of large clusters of stars which arose from the interaction.

Hubble's sharp eye spied more than 100 young, bright, compact star clusters, known as 'super star clusters', in M82's central region. Each cluster contains about 100,000 stars. These stars act like clocks: Their ages tell astronomers when the wreck occurred. Sampling clusters of stars in an older, 'fossil starburst' region, astronomers concluded that the galactic conflict between M82 and M81 began some 600 million years ago and lasted about 100 million years. The results are published in the February 2001 issue of the Astronomical Journal. This discovery provides evidence linking the birth of super star clusters to a violent interaction between galaxies. These clusters also provide insight into the rough-and-tumble universe of long ago, when galaxies bumped into each other more frequently.

Credit: Robert Gendler

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