We often hear of mergers of two stellar objects but we also sometimes talk about these or much smaller objects like planets or asteroids colliding.

What is the actual differences between Astronomy and Cosmology? received several excellent answers for example, but here what I'm looking for is if there can be a fairly easy way to differentiate the concepts of merger from that of collision, or establish the degree of overlap.

I do have an ulterior motive; in meta there is the question Do we need a tag for merging? I struggled to find something suitable for supermassive black hole mergers in galaxy collisions but in meta we discuss how the site works and how to maintain or improve it.

Here I'm asking the actual astronomy terminology question:

Question: What is the difference between the terms collision and merger? How are they used differently in Astronomy?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd lean towards "A collision splashes, a merger doesn't." $\endgroup$
    – notovny
    Jun 9, 2021 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ I think merger is an inelastic collision. $\endgroup$ Jun 9, 2021 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ @DaddyKropotkin I don't think that that's a helpful observation; can you cite any example of elastic collisions of astronomical bodies that come in contact? When bodies hit each other there's always dissipation, so collision and inelastic collision are the same thing in this context. All collisions dissipate, but some stick and some don't and some of those exchange appreciable mass and some don't. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 9, 2021 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ The meanings of these words just depends on context, which depends on the specific subfield one considers. I tried to give an abstract notion of the word "merger".... one can consider gravitational scattering of two objects as an elastic collision. $\endgroup$ Jun 9, 2021 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ Not allowed, but it does 😁 $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2021 at 8:27

1 Answer 1


Partial answer to share what I've found to date:


The term "merger" does have widespread use in . The word "merger" appears 71 times Wikipedia's Galaxy merger for example, with terms like binary merger, multiple merger, minor merger, major merger, wet merger, dry merger, damp merger, mixed merger, merger history trees all having explicit definitions there.

Supermassive Black holes

When galaxies merge, there is the question of what happens to the supermassive black hole (SBH) that may be in the center of each. Since galactic mergers and SBH mergers are inextricably linked I'll list their questions together here:

Stellar objects

But for individual stellar objects the situation does get murky. We have had a tag for a while now, and the "merging" of stars due to collisions happening in the centers of dense clusters is a topic first raised decades ago. Whether they merge, or just exchange matter or something else, it seems infinitely safer to stick with collision.

But as @DaddyKropotkin points out:

We're just giving you basic sense of how the terminology is used. It is subject-specific and nuanced since the word "merger" is used in the new field of gravitational wave astronomy, so you could get many different, inconsistent, opinionated answers.

When two objects that are either black holes (BH) or neutron stars (NS) find themselves in extremely close proximity, usually through a process of orbiting each other and spiraling inward due to energy radiation in the form of gravitational waves, and ultimately touch and combine much/most of their masses to form a single object, the last few seconds generates gravitational waves so strong that we can detect, record, and analyze them. These are then also called "mergers" (BH-BH, BH-NS and NS-NS mergers) See Wikipedia's List or gravitational wave observations; List of gravitational wave events for example.

From Appendix A: Astronomical Terminology:

Energies of the order inferred suggest that gamma ray bursts may originate in the merger of two neutron stars to form a black hole or the capture of a neutron star by a black hole. Such mergers provide almost the only ways in which we can conceive of vast amounts of energy to be liberated rapidly. The potential energy that can be released in these mergers is of order M0c2 ~ 1056 erg.

As for stars merging:

What can be said?

  1. "Merger" is a solid, standard term when it comes to galaxies and their supermassive black holes.
  2. "Merger" is becoming a standard term for the last few moments of NS-NS, NS-BH and BH-BH grabitational wave event.
  3. In the case of stars, it's murky and "collision" seems to at least adequately cover all possible types of events where there is substantial combination of two stars' mass into one "thing" which could be a supernova, a star or neutron star or black hole or something else. While the term "merger" might be used from time to time by some folks, "collision" will be understood by all.

Things smaller than stars (e.g. planets, protoplanets, asteroids, dust...)

I think that again in this case "collision" will be the right term, though in solar system formation there is plenty of merging of objects to make larger objects. This needs to be explored further as this answer identifies itself as a "Partial answer to share what I've found to date".

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    $\begingroup$ Query: Under the heading What can be said?, in point 2, should it be grabitational, as writen, or gravitational. I suspect it's a typo given b & v are adjacent on the keyboard. I can also see how grabitational might be an invented word to describe an acquisition situation. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Nov 8, 2021 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred gee, I like the word so much and I really hope it catches on, so I'm going to leave it as-is in hopes of receiving international acclaim. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 8, 2021 at 21:49

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