New astrophysical research at Durham University, UK, predicts that the Big Magellanic Cloud (LMC) could hit the Milky Way in two billion years.
The collision could occur much earlier than the anticipated impact of the Milky Way and another neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, that scientists say will hit our galaxy in eight billion years.
The catastrophe that comes along with the Great Magellanic Cloud could awaken the black hole of the galaxy, which would begin to devour the surrounding gas and increase in size by up to ten times.
While feeding, the active black hole will throw high energy radiation, and while these cosmic fireworks are unlikely to affect life on Earth, scientists say there is a small chance that the initial collision can send the system our solar in space.
The findings are published today (Friday, January 4) in the journal Monthly Notifications of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Galaxies, like their own Milky Way, are surrounded by a group of smaller satellite galaxies orbiting around them, similarly to how bees move around a hive.
Typically, these satellite galaxies have a quiet life and an orbit around their hosts for many billions of years. However, from time to time, they sink into the center, collide and are devoured by the host galaxy.
The Magellanic Sea is the brightest Milky Way satellite galaxy and came into our neighborhood about 1.5 billion years ago. It is about 163,000 light-years from the Milky Way.
Until recently, astronomers thought they would orbit the Milky Way for many billions of years or, as they move so fast, they will get rid of the gravitational pull of our galaxy.
However, recent measurements indicate that the Magellanic Sea cloud has almost twice as dark matter as previously thought. Researchers say that because it has a larger mass than expected, the Magellanic Sea cloud quickly loses energy and is determined to collide with our galaxy.
The research team, led by researchers at Durham's Computational Cosmology Institute, working at the University of Helsinki, Finland, used the EAGLE galaxy's supercomputer simulation to predict the collision.
The lead author, Dr. Marius Cautun, a postdoctoral fellow at the Durham Computational Cosmology Institute, said: "While two billion years are a very long period compared to a human life, it is a very short time in cosmic times.
"The destruction of the Magellanic Sea, as it is devoured by the Milky Way, will harm our galaxy, waking up the black hole that lives in its center and transforming our galaxy into an active galactic nucleus or quasar.
"This phenomenon will generate powerful jets of high-energy radiation emitted just outside the black hole. While this will not affect our solar system, there is a small chance not to escape the innocence of the collision between the two galaxies that we would could break down from the Milky Way and interstellar space. "
The collision between the Magellanic Sea and the Milky Way could be spectacular, say the researchers.
Co-author Professor Carlos Frenk, director of the Computational Cosmology Institute, Durham University, said, "The beauty is that our universe is constantly evolving, often through violent events such as the near collision with the Magellanic Nights.
"Apart from any disaster, as a major disruption to the solar system, our descendants, if any, have a treatment: a spectacular exposure to cosmic fireworks, as the supermassive black hole recently centered in our galaxy reacts through radiation jets extremely bright energy. "
According to the researchers, the fusion of the two galaxies could be long awaited in cosmic terms.
Dr. Alis Deason, of the Durham Computational Cosmology Institute, said: "We believe that until now our galaxy had only a few mergers with very small massive galaxies.
"This is a very thin collection compared to galaxies close to the same size as the Milky Way." For example, the closest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, devoured galaxies weighing nearly 30 times greater than those consumed by the Calea Milky.
"Therefore, the collision with the Magellanic Cloud is long awaited and necessary to make our galaxy a typical one."
The research was funded by the Council for Science and Technology, the European Research Council, the Royal Society and the Academy of Finland.
Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of the news bulletins posted at EurekAlert! by the contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.