The Milky Way is on a collision course with not just one, but two galaxies: Andromeda and the Large Magellanic Cloud.

So it might be reassuring to hear that Nasa is going to launch a serious study of a mysterious star in the second of these star-crossed celestial clusters.

Earlier this year, it was discovered that the LMC will collide with our own system in a crash so ‘catastrophic’ that it will awaken the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way and could even catapult our solar system into the bleakness of space.

Now stargazers are planning to peer deep into the Large Magellanic Cloud to examine a mysterious star called 1987A (SN 1987A) which died after exploding in a supernova.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51a) and companion galaxy (M51b), which are roughly similar in size to the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Milky Way.
Artist’s impression of a view from Earth after Andromeda has collided with the Milky Way (Picture: Nasa)

Of course, the space agency isn’t embarking on its study in a bid to avert this looming disaster, because there’s absolutely nothing humanity could ever do to influence the titanic movements of two colossal galaxies.

Also, it’s not going to happen for at least two billion years and there’s no telling if humanity will even be around to witness this dramatic event.

Nasa astronomers will use infrared cameras fitted aboard the James Webb Space Telescope – successorr to the Hubble Space Telescope – to examine the huge cloud of dust emitted by the star when it exploded.

They hope to ‘study its remains for clues about how stars live and die’.

“Dust is what the planets are made out of, what we’re made out of. Without dust, you have no planets,’ said Olivia Jones of the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, a co-investigator on the project.

An image of the remains of the dead star Nasa is planning to investigate (Image: Nasa)

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Researchers from Durham University released a study earlier this year which said the collision with the LMC could rouse the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s core so it begins ‘devouring’ everything around it and becoming fatter and fatter until it’s ten times bigger.

Whilst it’s feasting, the greedy hole will burp out lethal bursts of radiation powerful to kill any living being stone dead.

Luckily, Earth will probably be safe from these deadly eruptions, but the hullabaloo could be so dramatic that it catapults the Solar System out into the bleak space between galaxies, where it will wander, lonely, on a dangerous solitary journey through an uncaring universe.

A research team led by scientists at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology working with the University of Helsinki, in Finland, and used the EAGLE galaxy formation supercomputer simulation to predict the collision.

Lead author Dr Marius Cautun, a postdoctoral fellow at Durham University, said: ‘The destruction of the Large Magellanic Cloud, as it is devoured by the Milky Way, will wreak havoc with our galaxy, waking up the black hole that lives at its centre and turning our galaxy into an ‘active galactic nucleus’ or quasar.

‘This phenomenon will generate powerful jets of high energy radiation emanating from just outside the black hole. While this will not affect our Solar System, there is a small chance that we might not escape unscathed from the collision between the two galaxies which could knock us out of the Milky Way and into interstellar space.’

A view of the Large Magellanic Cloud

It was once believed that the Large Magellanic cloud would just continue orbiting the Milky Way or disappear off on its own journey one day.

But recent research found it was twice as heavy as previous calculations, meaning a crash was inevitable.

The ‘fireworks’ caused by this collision are likely to be stunning.

Professor Carlos Frenk, director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology, said: ‘Beautiful as it is, our Universe is constantly evolving, often through violent events like the forthcoming collision with the Large Magellanic Cloud.

‘Barring any disasters, like a major disturbance to the Solar System, our descendants, if any, are in for a treat: a spectacular display of cosmic fireworks as the newly awakened supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy reacts by emitting jets of extremely bright energetic radiation.’

The researchers believe the collision is ‘long overdue in cosmic terms’.

Dr Alis Deason, of Durham University, said: ‘We think that up to now our galaxy has had only a few mergers with very low mass galaxies.

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‘This represents very slim pickings when compared to nearby galaxies of the same size as the Milky Way. For example, our nearest neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy, devoured galaxies weighing nearly 30 times more than those consumed by the Milky Way.

‘Therefore, the collision with the Large Magellanic Cloud is long overdue and it is needed to make our galaxy typical.’

So how long have we got and is it time to start worrying?

Well, that depends on how much of a long-term view you have of human existence.

The collision will happen in about two billion years.

Dr Cautun added: ‘While two billion years is an extremely long time compared to a human lifetime, it is a very short time on cosmic timescales.’

If humanity somehow survives long enough to see the Large Magellanic Cloud crash into the Milky Way and then lives through the disaster, it will face several more major challenges down the line.

Two billion years after the Cloud bashes into us, the galaxy Andromeda will also collide with us.

Then, in about seven billion years’ time, the Sun will expand to a huge size and swallow Earth.





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