Spacely Come Dancing - two galaxies perform 'intricate' dance

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Two vast galaxies perform a spectacular celestial tango in this astonishing new image captured by the Hubble space telescope.

With the arm of one galaxy wrapped gently around the body of the other, the pair are slowly swinging around in a graceful performance choreographed by gravity.

The dance of the two galaxies - vast clouds of stars and gas known collectively as Arp 87 - is taking place 300 million light years from the Earth, far beyond the edge of our own galaxy the Milky Way.
Shall we dance? The two main players comprising Arp 87 are NGC 3808 on the right (the larger of the two galaxies) and its' companion NGC 3808A on the left

Although astronomers have discovered hundreds of merging galaxies in the past, Arp 87 is one of the most beautiful.

Each of the two galaxies contains billions of stars. Both are spiral shaped, although the galaxy on the left is seen from its side.

Stars, gas and dust are flowing from the larger galaxy on the right, forming an arm which envelopes its smaller neighbour.

A spokesman for Nasa said: "The resolution in the Hubble image shows exquisite detail and fine structure that was not observable when Arp 87 was first discovered in the 1970's."

The corkscrew shape of the arm stretching from the larger galaxy suggests that some stars and gas are being caught in the gravitational pull of its smaller companion.

The shapes of both galaxies has also been distorted over billions of years by their gravitational interaction with each other.

Nasa said the two galaxies were incredibly fertile - and were producing larger than normal numbers of new stars. "Some merging galaxies have the highest levels of star formation we can find anywhere in the nearby universe," said a spokesman.

Arp 87 was originally discovered by astronomer Halton Arp in the 1970s.

The dancing galaxies is just the latest in a long line of spectacular space pictures captured by the Hubble. Since its launch on a space shuttle in 1990, the orbiting telescope has sent back pictures of our system, vast star nurseries, far distant stars and remote galaxies, invisible from the Earth.

Some objects are so distant, the light has spent 10 billion years travelling to the Earth- allowing Hubble to effectively peer back in time.

It is expected to carry on photographing the heavens until 2013 when it will be replaced by the even bigger and more powerful £2.3 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

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