A group of three galaxies, collectively known as NGC 7764A, imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope using both its Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3. (image courtesy NASA)

The Hubble Space Telescope continues to expand our understanding of the universe through images of never-before-seen phenomena and objects that are driving new theories and discoveries every day. First conceived in the 1940s, and initially called the Large Space Telescope (original!), Hubble was launched on April 24, 1990 and by May 20, 1990, it was already beaming back images that were roughly 50 percent sharper than ground-based images. The same year it was capturing images of Supernova 1987A, and in the years that followed it was releasing clear images of Jupiter, proving evidence of black holes (which were theoretical objects up until that point), showing up Pluto’s two moons, illustrating the impact of a comet on Jupiter, and much more.

The latest image, released by NASA partner the European Space Agency, suggests there’s yet more to learn about our intergalactic neighborhood. The trippy photo depicts a group of three galaxies, collectively known as NGC 7764A, and well, one of those galaxies appears to have ruined it for everyone else.

According to NASA:

The two galaxies in the upper right of the image appear to be interacting with one another — indeed, the long trails of stars and gas extending from them both give the impression that they have both just been struck at great speed, thrown into disarray by the bowling-ball-shaped galaxy to the lower left of the image. In reality, however, interactions between galaxies happen over very long time periods, and galaxies rarely collide head-on with one another. It is also unclear whether the galaxy to the lower left is actually interacting with the other two, although they are so relatively close in space that it seems possible that they are.

By happy coincidence, the collective interaction between these galaxies have caused the two on the upper right to form a shape, which from our Solar System’s perspective, ressembles the starship known as the USS Enterprise from Star Trek! NGC 7764A, which lies about 425 million light years from Earth in the constellation Phoenix, is a fascinating example of just how awkward astronomical nomenclature can be. The three galaxies are individually referred to as NGC 7764A1, NGC 7764A2 and NGC 7764A3, and just to be really difficult, an entirely separate galaxy, named NGC 7764, sits in the skies about a Moon’s distance (as seen from Earth) away. This rather haphazard naming makes more sense when we consider that many of the catalogues for keeping track of celestial bodies were compiled well over 100 years ago, long before modern technology made standardising scientific terminology much easier. As it is, many astronomical objects have several different names, or might have names that are so similar to other objects’ names that they cause confusion.

The reference to Star Trek demonstrates that the US governmental agency knows the nerds to whom they speak, not to mention it alludes to the role culture has in forming our imagination about the unknown. Just a few years ago we were all pointing out how the US Space Agency’s new logo resembled that of the Star Trek’s Starfleet Command, which, love it or hate it, generated a lot of discussion and helped fuel the popular imagination regarding space travel.

But — stay with me here — what if this is a warning sign to the rest of us that galaxies are just like you and me? What if that third galaxy was having a threesome and decided to leave, not caring about the refuse it left behind? Or maybe this was a poly situation gone awry. I’m never not one to try something different (who’s with me?), but honestly, that little galaxy looks happier away from that mess — clearly they weren’t ready for whatever the experience was. Alas, we may never know, though I think the smaller galaxy looks ready to spill it all in a Netflix biopic (fingers crossed). Clearly my imagination is going wild at the idea of a galactic rom-com gone wrong — ok, ok, I’ll let myself out.

We may never know what eventually happened to these star-crossed lovers, but one thing is for sure: Hubble appears to have been a worthwhile investment and demonstrates what can be achieved when governmental resources are effectively used for science.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.