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What is a galaxy?

A cluster of galaxies - lots of bright oblongs and spirals, different sizes, all angles, on a black background.

This is a giant galaxy cluster known as Abell 2744, aka Pandora’s Cluster, located in the direction of the constellation Sculptor. The cluster is about 4 million light-years across and has the mass of 4 trillion suns. It appears to be the result of a simultaneous pile-up of at least 4 separate, smaller galaxy clusters that took place over a span of 350 million years. Read more about this image at HubbleSite. Image via NASA/ ESA/ J. Lotz/ M. Mountain/ A. Koekemoer/ the Hubble Frontier Fields Team.

A galaxy is a vast island of stars in an ocean of space. Galaxies are typically separated from one another by huge distances measured in millions of light-years. Galaxies are sometimes said to be the building blocks of our universe. Their distribution isn’t random, as one might suppose: galaxies are strung out along unimaginably long filaments across the universe, a cosmic web of star cities.

A galaxy can contain hundreds of billions of stars and be many thousands of light-years across. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is around 100,000 light-years in diameter. That’s about 587,900 trillion miles, nearly a million trillion kilometers.

Galaxies are of widely varying sizes, too.

There are an estimated two trillion galaxies in the universe.

3 boxes with different configurations of galaxies and voids, evenly distributed in the first box and very clumpy in third.

Illustration showing snapshots from a simulation by astrophysicist Volker Springel of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. It represents the growth of cosmic structure (galaxies and voids) when the universe was 0.9 billion, 3.2 billion and 13.7 billion years old (now). Image via Volker Springel / MPE/ Kavli Foundation.

Galaxies group together in clusters. Our own galaxy is part of what is called the Local Group, for example: a cluster comprising 55 galaxies that we know of so far.

In turn, galaxy clusters themselves group into superclusters. Our Local Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster.

The “glue” that binds stars into galaxies, galaxies into clusters, clusters into superclusters and superclusters into filaments is – of course – gravity, the universe’s construction worker, which sculpts all the structures we see in the cosmos.

Labeled groups of galaxies connected by arrows.

Distances from the Local Group for selected groups and clusters within the Local Supercluster, which is called the Virgo Supercluster.

There are several basic types of galaxy, each containing sub-types. Galaxies were first systematically classified, based on their visual appearance, by the famous astronomer Edwin P. Hubble in the late 1920s and 30s, during years of painstaking observations. Hubble’s Classification of Galaxies, as it is known, is still very much in use today, although, since Hubble’s time, like any good classification system it has been updated and amended in the light of new observations.

Before Hubble’s study of galaxies, it was believed that our galaxy was the only one in the universe. Astronomers thought that the smudges of light they saw in their telescopes were in fact nebulae within our own galaxy and not, as Hubble discovered, galaxies in their own right. It was Hubble who demonstrated, by measuring their velocities, that they lie at great distances from us, millions of light-years beyond the Milky Way, distances so huge that they appear tiny in all but the largest telescopes. Moreover, he demonstrated that, wherever he looked, galaxies are receding from us in all directions, and the further away they are, the faster they are receding. Hubble had discovered that the universe is expanding.

The handle of the 'tuning fork' consists of elliptical galaxies; barred spirals and simple spirals make up the 2 prongs.

A diagrammatic representation of Edwin Hubble’s “tuning fork diagram.” In the late 1920s and 30s, Hubble conducted the laborious observations needed to begin to classify galaxies. His original classification scheme was published in 1936 in a book called “The Realm of the Nebulae.” His original scheme is – like all scientific work – continually being modified. But his idea of a “tuning fork diagram” has continued to be useful. Image via Las Cumbres Observatory.

The most common type of galaxy is the one most people are familiar with: the spiral galaxy. The Milky Way is of this family. Spiral galaxies have majestic, sweeping arms, thousands of light years long, made up of millions upon millions of stars. Our solar system is situated about 2/3 of the way out from the galactic center towards the periphery of the galaxy, embedded in one of these spiral arms.

Spiral galaxies are also characterised by having a bright center, made up of a dense concentration of stars, so tightly packed that from a distance the galaxy’s center looks like a solid ball. This ball of stars is known as the galactic bulge. At the center of the Milky Way – within the galactic bulge – the density of stars has been calculated at 1 million per 34 cubic light-years, for example.

Meanwhile, in the vicinity of our sun, the stellar density has been estimated as 0.004 stars per cubic light-year. Big difference!

Long, bright horizontal and reddish formation of stars, dust, and gas.

A stunning view of the center of our Milky Way galaxy as seen by the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in Australia in 2019. Image via Natasha Hurley-Walker (ICRAR/ Curtin)/ GLEAM Team/ Phys.org.

The Milky Way is, in fact, in one of Hubble’s spiral galaxy sub-types: it’s a barred spiral, which means it has a bar of stars protruding out from either side of the center. The ends of the bar form the anchors of the spiral arms, the place from where they sweep out in their graceful and enormous arcs. This is a fairly recent discovery: how the bar forms in a galaxy is not yet understood.

Also established recently is the fact that the disk of the Milky Way is not, as most diagrams depict, flat: it is warped, like a long-playing vinyl record left too long in the sun. Exactly why is not known, but it is thought to be the result of a gravitational encounter with another galaxy early in the Milky Way’s history.

A flat galaxy, seen edge-on, whose outer regions appear slightly bent. There is a bright central bulge.

Artist’s illustration of our warped Milky Way. Image via Ogle/ Warsaw University/ BBC.

Elliptical galaxies are the universe’s largest galaxies. They are huge and football-shaped.

They come to be because – although most galaxies are flying apart from each other – those astronomically close to each other will be mutually gravitationally attracted. Caught in an inexorable gravitational dance, eventually they merge, passing through each other over millions of years, eventually forming a single, amorphous elliptical galaxy. Such mergers may result in the birth of new generations of stars as gravity’s shock-wave compresses huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust.

The Milky Way is caught in such a gravitational embrace with M31, aka the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2 1/2 million light-years distant. Both galaxies are moving toward each other because of gravitational attraction: they will merge in about 6 billion years from now. However, both galaxies are surrounded by huge halos of gas which may extend for millions of light-years, and it was recently discovered that the halos of the Milky Way and M31 have started to touch.

The two galaxies have had their first kiss.

Galaxy mergers are not uncommon: the universe is filled with examples of galaxies in various stages of merging together, their structures disrupted and distorted by gravity, forming bizarre and beautiful shapes.

Two galaxies close together stretched irregularly with long streamers of stars.

Galaxies may take billions of years to fully merge into a single galaxy. As astronomers look outward in space, they can see only “snapshots” of this long merger process. Located 300 million light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices, these 2 colliding galaxies have been nicknamed The Mice because of the long tails of stars and gas emanating from each galaxy. Otherwise known as NGC 4676, the pair will eventually merge into a single giant galaxy. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

At the lower end of the galactic size scale, there are the so-called dwarf galaxies, consisting of a few hundred to up to several billion stars. Their origin is not clear. Usually they have no clearly defined structure. Astronomers believe they were born in the same way as larger galaxies like the Milky Way, but for whatever reason they stopped growing. Ensnared by the gravity of a larger galaxy, they orbit its periphery. The Milky Way has around 20 dwarf galaxies orbiting it that we know of, although some models predict there should be many more.

The two most famous dwarf galaxies for us earthlings are, of course, the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, visible to the unaided eye in Earth’s Southern Hemisphere sky.

Eventually, these and other dwarf galaxies will be ripped apart by the titanic maw of the Milky Way’s gravity, leaving behind a barely noticeable stream of stars across the sky, slowly dissipating over eons.

Nearly vertical cloudy band of light in a starry sky with two bright fuzzy blobs to the right.

Lynton Brown captured this beautiful image of the Milky Way over Taylor’s Lake near Horsham, Australia, on April 22, 2019. The 2 objects on the right are the Magellanic Clouds. Thank you, Lynton!

It is believed that all galaxies rotate: the Milky Way takes 226 million years to spin around once, for example. Since its birth, therefore, the Earth has travelled 20 times around the galaxy.

At the center of most galaxies lurks a supermassive black hole, of millions or even billions of solar masses. The record holder, TON 618, has a mass 66 billion times that of our sun.

The origin and evolution of supermassive black holes are not well understood. A few years ago, astronomers uncovered a surprising fact: in spiral galaxies, the mass of the supermassive black hole has a direct linear relationship with the mass of the galactic bulge. The more mass the black hole has, the more stars there are in the bulge. No one knows exactly what the significance of this relationship is, but its existence seems to indicate that the growth of a galaxy’s stellar population and that of its supermassive black hole are inextricably linked.

This discovery comes at a time when astronomers are beginning to realize that a supermassive black hole may control the fate of its host galaxy: the copious amounts of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the maelstrom of material orbiting the central black hole, known as the accretion disk, may push away and dissipate the clouds of interstellar hydrogen from which new stars form. This acts as a throttle on the galaxy’s ability to give birth to new stars. Ultimately, the emergence of life itself may be tied to the activity of supermassive black holes. This is an area of much ongoing research.

While astronomers still know very little about exactly how galaxies formed in the first place – we see them in their nascent forms existing only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang – the study of galaxies is an endless voyage of discovery.

Less than a hundred years after it was realized that other galaxies beside our own exist, we have learned so much about these grand, majestic star cities. And there is still much to learn.

Bottom line: What is a galaxy? Learn about these starry islands in space.

Andy Briggs

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