Collisions between galaxies are a fairly common occurrence in the universe. Our Milky Way galaxy will crash into the Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years. Galaxies tangle together, kicking gas and dust all around. Often the battered galaxies are left with tails of material stripped off during the violence.
The astronomers were able to find this tail with the help of the Galaxy Evolution Explorer. Clusters of massive, young stars speckle the tail, and these stars glow with ultraviolet light that the space telescope can see. The young stars tell scientists that a crucial ingredient for star formation - dense clouds of gas called molecular hydrogen - formed in the wake of this galaxy's plunge. This is the first time astronomers have found solid evidence that clouds of molecular hydrogen can form under the violent conditions present in a turbulent wake.