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Milky Way over Chilean Volcanoes

Sometimes, the sky mimics the ground. Taken in 2017 May from the Atacama Desert in Chile, the foreground of the featured image encompasses the dipping edge of the caldera of an extinct volcano. Poetically echoing the dip below is the arch of our Milky Way Galaxy above. Many famous icons dot this southern nighttime vista, including the center of our Milky Way Galaxy on the far left, the bright orange star Antares also on the left, the constellation of the Southern Cross near the top of the arch, and the red-glowing Gum Nebula on the far right. Just above the horizon and splitting two distant volcanic peaks near the image center is the Large Magellanic Cloud -- the largest satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
Image Credit: Carlos Eduardo Fairbairn

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Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, published over 100 years ago, predicted the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. And that's what gives these distant galaxies such a whimsical appearance, seen through the looking glass of X-ray and optical image data from the Chandra and Hubble space telescopes. Nicknamed the Cheshire Cat galaxy group, the group's two large elliptical galaxies are suggestively framed by arcs. The arcs are optical images of distant background galaxies lensed by the foreground group's total distribution of gravitational mass. The two large elliptical "eye" galaxies represent the brightest members of their own galaxy groups which are merging. Their relative collisional speed of nearly 1,350 kilometers/second heats gas to millions of degrees producing the X-ray glow shown in purple hues. Curiouser about galaxy group mergers? The Cheshire Cat group grins in the constellation Ursa Major, some 4.6 billion light-years away.

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