Small Magellanic Cloud
Atomic hydrogen gas in the Small Magellanic Cloud imaged with CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. Australian National University/CSIRO

Astronomers have captured a spectacular image of the Milky Way 'bullying' and 'consuming' a smaller dwarf galaxy.

Large galaxies like our own need to constantly eat smaller galaxies to fuel themselves and ensure there is enough material - namely hydrogen - to create new stars. If they don't, they will eventually die out.

"The Milky Way has to eat galaxies to keep building stars," Naomi McClure-Griffiths, from the Australian National University told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Our galaxy needs food, and these are kind of snacks."

McClure-Griffiths's team have been studying the Small Megellanic Cloud, a so-called dwarf galaxy 200,000 light years away that consists of around 100 million stars and is tied into the orbit of the Milky Way. (By comparison, our own galaxy is home to hundreds of billions of stars.)

The Small Magellanic Cloud – which is one of the most distant objects that can be seen without a telescope – will be consumed and eventually incorporated into our own. This process is likely to take several billion years, according to the astronomers.

The image was taken by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope which uses radio waves to highlight sections of the sky which are otherwise invisible.

Data captured by the telescope shows hydrogen gas from the Small Magellanic Cloud being sucked away by the large gravitational forces of the Milky Way and another nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

"As you get out to the outer edges of the galaxy you can see where it's being ripped apart and blowing itself to smithereens," McClure-Griffiths said. "The Small Magellanic Cloud is like the little guy that's being bullied by the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud – and it's falling apart in the process."