From the April 2019 issue

Will the Pinwheel Galaxy (M33) merge with the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) prior to Andromeda merging with the Milky Way?

James Blevins  Glendale, Arizona
By | Published: April 2, 2019 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Our Milky Way Galaxy and the Andromeda Galaxy are destined to collide nearly head on in a few billion years. In one possible scenario, the smaller Pinwheel Galaxy (M33) misses the action during the initial smashup; if so, M33 may later merge with the result of the Milky Way-Andromeda collision, dubbed “Milkomeda.”
Astronomy: Roen Kelly
The Milky Way and M31 are the two most massive galaxies in the Local Group. Both of these galaxies, which are separated by about 2.5 million light-years, are also host to many tens of low-mass satellite galaxies that orbit around them. The third most massive member of the Local Group is the Pinwheel Galaxy in Triangulum. Based on work using the Very Long Baseline Array, Hubble Space Telescope, and Gaia, we now believe M33 is a satellite galaxy of M31, analogous to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) orbiting around the Milky Way.

Since the early 1900s, it has been known that M31 is moving toward the Milky Way. Advanced technology has helped astronomers pin down the speed of M31 to nearly 250,000 mph (402,336 km/h). However, until 2012, the transverse motion of M31, or its proper motion across the sky as a function of time, was not yet measured, and the net direction of M31’s velocity toward the Milky Way was also unknown. In other words, it was unclear whether the Milky Way and M31 would collide head on or just miss each other.

In 2012, a team based at the Space Telescope Science Institute published a study in which they used the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the proper motion of M31. They found that it is primarily moving in the direction along the line of sight between M31 and our vantage point near the Milky Way’s center (i.e., the transverse motion of M31 is low), meaning that the Milky Way and M31 are on a nearly head-on collision course. Based on this work, the team concluded that the first collision will take place about 4 billion years from now, and that multiple collisions occurring between 4 billion and 6 billion years from now are required for the galaxies to completely merge into one final galaxy. The team also concluded that M33 will miss the initial collision between the Milky Way and M31; however, it may eventually join and later merge with the combined Milky Way-M31 remnant galaxy. There is also a chance it will collide with the Milky Way prior to the Milky Way and M31 merging into one another. 

In more recent work, the same team (of which I am now a part) used data from the Gaia spacecraft to remeasure the proper motions (and therefore the velocities) of both M31 and M33. We found that the Milky Way and M31 are still destined for a head-on collision 4.5 billion years from now. Including the gravitational influence of M33 and the LMC, however, causes a delay of about 1 billion years, and the first collision between the Milky Way and M31 occurs 5.5 billion years from now. The uncertainties on the galaxies’ velocities from Gaia are large, so it is difficult to narrow down M33’s fate solely based on Gaia data. These uncertainties will be significantly reduced by the end of the mission, at which point M33’s fate can be determined more confidently.

Ekta Patel 
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, 
Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, 
University of Arizona, Tucson