Skip to main content
Select Source:

Galaxy

Galaxy

A galaxy is a large collection of stars, glowing nebulae (clouds), gas, and dust bound together by gravity. Many scientists now believe that a black hole, the remains of a massive star, lies at the center of many galaxies. Galaxies are as plentiful in the universe as grains of sand on a beach. The galaxy that contains our solar system is called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of a cluster of some 30 galaxies known as the Local Group, and the Local Group is part of a local supercluster that includes many clusters.

Although astronomers are not yet sure how galaxies formed and evolved, the process must have occurred quickly very early in the history of the universe. The age of the oldest galaxies appears to be about the same age as the universe, which is estimated to be 10 to 13 billion years old.

Words to Know

Barred spiral galaxy: A spiral galaxy in which the spiral arms start at the end of a central bar structure rather than the nucleus.

Black hole: The remains of a massive star that has burned out its nuclear fuel and collapsed under tremendous gravitational force into a single point of infinite mass and gravity.

Dark matter: Unseen matter that has a gravitational effect on the motions of galaxies within clusters of galaxies.

Halo: A distribution of older stars and clusters of stars surrounding the nucleus of a spiral galaxy.

Irregular galaxy: A galaxy that does not fit into the shape categories of elliptical and spiral galaxies.

Light-year: The distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles (9.46 trillion kilometers).

Milky Way: The galaxy in which we are located.

Nebulae: Bright or dark clouds, often composed of gases, hovering in the space between the stars.

Nucleus: The central core of a galaxy.

Radio waves: Electromagnetic radiation, or energy emitted in the form of waves or particles.

Spiral arms: The regions where stars are concentrated that spiral out from the center of a spiral galaxy.

Spiral galaxy: A galaxy in which spiral arms wind outward from the nucleus.

The shape of galaxies

Galaxies can be spiral, elliptical, or irregular in shape. The Milky Way and nearby Andromeda galaxy are both spiral shaped. They have a group of objects at the center (stars and possibly a black hole) surrounded by a halo of stars and an invisible cloud of dark matter. From this nucleus or center, arms spiral out like a pinwheel. The spiral shape is formed because the entire galaxy is rotating, with the stars at the outer edges forming the arms. Most spiral galaxies have just one arm wrapped around the nucleus, although some have two or even three arms.

Spiral galaxies are divided into two types: barred and unbarred. In barred spirals, a thick bar of stars crosses the center of the galaxy. Unbarred spirals have no such feature.

An elliptical galaxy contains mostly older stars, with very little dust or gas. It can be round or oval, flattened or spherical, and resembles the nucleus of a spiral galaxy without the arms. Astronomers do not yet know whether elliptical galaxies eventually form arms and become spirals, or if spiral galaxies lose their arms to become elliptical.

About one-quarter of all galaxies are irregular in shape and are much smaller than spiral galaxies. The irregular shape may be caused by the formation of new stars in these galaxies or by the pull of a neighboring galaxy's gravitational field. Two examples of an irregular galaxy are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, visible in the night sky from the Southern Hemisphere.

Some galaxies are variations of these types. There are the Seyfert galaxies (violent, fast-moving spirals); bright elliptical galaxies of super-giants that often consume other galaxies; ring galaxies that seem to have no nucleus; twisted starry ribbons formed when two galaxies collide; and others.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy about 100,000 light-years across. Its disklike nucleus, which bulges to about 30,000 light-years thick, contains billions of old stars and maybe even a black hole. It has four spiral arms. Our solar system is located in the Orion arm, about 30,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy.

Just as Earth revolves around the Sun, the Sun revolves around the nucleus of the galaxy. Traveling at a speed of about 155 miles (250 kilometers) per second, the Sun completes one revolution around the galactic center in about 220 million years.

Active Galaxies

An active galaxy is one that emits far more energy than a normal galaxy. The Milky Way, like most galaxies, is relatively stable and quiet. Active galaxies, on the other hand, give off more than 100 times the energy of the Milky Way. Explosions at the nucleus of active galaxies spew huge jets of material hundreds of thousands of light-years into space. The energy is emitted as radio waves (electromagnetic radiation) rather than optical light. There are several varieties of active galaxies, including Seyfert galaxies and quasars.

Seyfert galaxies look like spiral galaxies with a hyperactive nucleus. The normal-looking spiral arms surround an abnormally bright nucleus. Quasars are the most interesting of active galaxies. A quasar can emit more energy in one second than our sun has in its entire lifetime. Quasars, which look like stars, are the most distant and energetic objects in the universe known so far. Most astronomers consider a quasar to be the very active nucleus of a distant galaxy in the early stages of evolution. The light from a quasar has been traveling toward Earth for billions of years, perhaps from the very beginning of the universe.

In ancient times, people looked into space and saw a glowing band of light. They thought it resembled a river of milk and called it the Milky Way. In the late 1500s, Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (15641642) first examined the Milky Way through a telescope and saw that the glowing band was made up of countless stars. As early as 1755, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) suggested that the Milky Way was a lens-shaped group of stars, and that many other such groups existed in the universe.

Over the years, astronomers learned more about the shape of the Milky Way, but they continued to place our solar system at the center. In 1918, American astronomer Harlow Shapley (18851972) studied the distribution of star clusters and determined that our solar system was not at the center, but on the fringes of the galaxy.

Hubble and the expanding universe

In 1924, American astronomer Edwin Hubble (18891953) first proved the existence of other galaxies. Using a very powerful 100-inch (254-centimeter) telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, he discovered that a group of stars long thought to be part of the Milky Way was actually a separate galaxy, now known as the Andromeda galaxy. Modern estimates place Andromeda 2.2 million light-years away from the Milky Way. Hubble also discovered many other spiral-shaped galaxies. In 1927, Dutch astronomer Jan Oort (19001992) showed that galaxies rotate about their center.

Beyond these important discoveries, Hubble found that more distant galaxies are moving away from us at a faster rate. From this observation, known as Hubble's Law, he deduced that the universe is expanding, a fundamental fact about the nature of the universe.

In early 1996, the Hubble Space Telescope sent back photographs of 1,500 very distant galaxies in the process of forming, indicating that the number of galaxies in the universe is far greater than previously thought. Based on this and other discoveries in the late 1990s, astronomers have estimated the number of galaxies to be 50 billion.

[See also Quasar; Radio astronomy; Solar system; Star; Starburst galaxy ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Galaxy." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Galaxy." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy-1

"Galaxy." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy-1

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

galaxy

galaxy, large aggregation of stars, gas, and dust, typically containing billions of stars. Recognition that galaxies are independent star systems outside the Milky Way came from a study of the Andromeda Galaxy (1926–29) by Edwin P. Hubble that indicated the great distances at which this and other galaxies are located. Previously, the galaxies had been classified with the luminous gas clouds, or bright nebulae, within the Milky Way. The sun and its solar system, as well as the visible stars, are all in the Milky Way galaxy. Harlow Shapley encouraged the exclusive use of the term "galaxies." Billions of galaxies are within the optical range of the largest telescopes; in 1996 analysis of photographs taken from the Hubble Space Telescope increased the estimated number of galaxies from 10 billion to 50 billion. Research with the Hubble Space Telescrope has also indicated that supermassive black holes are found at the center of large galaxy. A galaxy is held together by the gravitational attraction between its constituent parts (see gravitation), while its rotational motion prevents it from collapsing on itself. Just as gravitation binds individual stars into galaxies, it also acts to hold clusters of galaxies together. Many large galaxies have smaller galaxies, called satellite galaxies, in close proximity. The galaxies nearest the Milky Way form a cluster called the Local Group. The Local Group includes the Andromeda Galaxy, which is a spiral galaxy similar in size and composition to the Milky Way, and the Magellanic Clouds, which are satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. The vast majority of observed galaxies are classified as either spiral or elliptical (football-shaped), with a small minority, e.g., the Magellanic Clouds, classified as irregular according to a scheme originated by Hubble. Although estimates of the age of the universe have varied (see Hubble's law), current estimates place its age at around 13.75 billion years. The earliest galaxies imaged by modern astronomers include several that were formed less than 600 million years after that, and one galaxy has been discovered that was formed some 380 million years after the big bang.

A typical spiral galaxy is shaped like a flat disk, about 100,000 light-years in diameter, with a central bulge, or nucleus, containing old stars; winding through the disk are the characteristic spiral arms of dust, gas, and young stars (see stellar populations). This type of galaxy is further classified as being either a normal or a barred spiral. In the normal spiral, the arms, at least two in number, join smoothly with the nucleus; in the barred spiral, such as the Milky Way, the arms project from a bank of stars that runs through the nucleus. The elliptical galaxies, lacking spiral arms entirely and containing little or no gas and dust, resemble the nuclei of spiral galaxies. Their shapes vary from nearly spherical to highly flattened ellipsoids. Elliptical galaxies have a much greater variation in size, mass, and luminosity than do spiral galaxies; their sizes range from the largest known galaxies of all, with luminosities about 10 times that of the Andromeda Galaxy, to the small dwarf ellipticals, which can contain as few as a million stars. Irregular galaxies appear structureless and without any nucleus or rotational symmetry; their light comes mostly from young stars.

Spiral galaxies contain a larger number of bluer, younger stars, while elliptical galaxies contain a larger number of redder, older stars. This has led astronomers to believe that stars initially cluster into spiral galaxies and that over time structural changes transform them into elliptical galaxies. Some researchers speculate that the transformation occurs because of gravitational forces exerted by galaxies as they slowly pass each other. Computer simulations suggest another alternative, called "galactic harassment," in which galaxies interact although they remain far apart and pass each other at high speeds. The most widely accepted alternative suggests that the transformation is caused by collisions of galaxies and gravitational tidal interactions between them as they travel through space, causing them to grow and evolve. Several dwarf galaxies are currently colliding with the Milky Way; others are on course to do so over the next 2 to 3 billion years. The collisions are not cataclysmic because galaxies—even though they may contain many billions of stars—are mostly "empty" space and the probability of two stars meeting is very small. However, the "empty" space is not really empty, it is full of gas and dust which can interact when the galaxies collide. There is also friction between the gas and dust in the colliding galaxies, causing shock waves that can trigger some star formation in the galaxies. These processes can radically affect the colliding galaxies, e.g., two spiral galaxies can merge to form an elliptical galaxy.

Many galaxies radiate a large fraction of their energy in forms other than visible light. With the development of radio astronomy, many radio galaxies were discovered. Other galaxies radiate strongly in the infrared, ultraviolet, or X-ray parts of the spectrum.

See R. J. Tayler, Galaxies, Structure and Evolution (1993); N. Henbest and H. Couper, The Guide to the Galaxy (1994); M. S. Longair, Galaxy Formation (1998); M. Merrifield and J. Binney, Galactic Astronomy (1998); L. S. Sparke and J. S. Gallagher 3d, Galaxies in the Universe (2d ed. 2007); H. Mo, F. van den Bosch and S. White, Galaxy Formation and Evolution (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"galaxy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"galaxy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy

"galaxy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

galaxy

galaxy Huge, gravitationally bound, assemblage of stars, dust, gas, and dark matter. Current theories suggest all galaxies were formed from immense clouds of gas soon after the Big Bang. There are three main types, as classified by Edwin Hubble in 1925. Elliptical galaxies (E) are round or elliptical systems, showing a gradual decrease in brightness from the centre outwards. Spiral galaxies (S) are flattened, disc-shaped systems in which young stars, dust and gas are concentrated in spiral arms coiling out from a central bulge, the nucleus. Barred spiral galaxies (SB) have a bright, central bar from which the spiral arms emerge. In addition to these three main classes are transitional lenticular galaxies, systems with a disc and nucleus but with no apparent spiral arms. Irregular galaxies, such as the Magellanic Clouds, are systems with no symmetry. Galaxies can exist singly or in clusters. Interactions between gas-rich galaxies can produce bursts of star formation and may act as a trigger for generating active galactic nuclei such as quasars. About one galaxy in a million is a radio galaxy, emitting strong electromagnetic radiation. A Seyfert galaxy has a bright, compact nucleus and is a strong emitter of infrared waves. A general property of galaxies seems to be the presence of much more mass than can be accounted for by all the material that can currently be detected. This ‘dark matter’ makes up 90% of the mass in typical galaxies. It seems that supermassive black holes lie at the centre of most galaxies, including our own. Our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, is spiral and c.100,000 light years in diameter. Earth is 26,500 light years from the centre. The Solar System lies at the edge of one of the spiral arms, c.30,000 light years from the centre.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"galaxy." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"galaxy." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy

"galaxy." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

galaxy

gal·ax·y / ˈgaləksē/ • n. (pl. -ax·ies) a system of millions or billions of stars, together with gas and dust, held together by gravitational attraction. ∎  (the Galaxy) the galaxy of which the solar system is a part; the Milky Way. ∎ fig. a large or impressive group of people or things: a galaxy of boundless young talent. ORIGIN: late Middle English (originally referring to the Milky Way): via Old French from medieval Latin galaxia, from Greek galaxias (kuklos) ‘milky (vault),’ from gala, galakt- ‘milk.’

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"galaxy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"galaxy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy-1

"galaxy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy-1

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

galaxy

galaxy a system of millions or billions of stars, together with gas and dust, held together by gravitational attraction; the Galaxy, the galaxy of which the solar system is a part, the Milky Way; in figurative usage, a large or impressive group of people.

The name is recorded from Middle English, referring to the Milky Way, and comes via Old French and medieval Latin from Greek galaxias (kuklos) ‘milky (vault)’, from gala, galakt- ‘milk’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"galaxy." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"galaxy." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy

"galaxy." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

galaxy

galaxy the Milky Way XIV; brilliant assemblage XVII. — (O)F. galaxie — medL. galaxia, late L. galaxias — Gr. galaxias, f. gála, galakt- milk; see -Y3.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"galaxy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"galaxy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy-2

"galaxy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy-2

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

galaxy

galaxy •radiancy •immediacy, intermediacy •expediency • idiocy • saliency •resiliency • leniency •incipiency, recipiency •recreancy • pruriency • deviancy •subserviency • transiency • pliancy •buoyancy, flamboyancy •fluency, truancy •constituency • abbacy • embassy •celibacy • absorbency •incumbency, recumbency •ascendancy, intendancy, interdependency, pendency, resplendency, superintendency, tendency, transcendency •candidacy •presidency, residency •despondency • redundancy • infancy •sycophancy • argosy • legacy •profligacy • surrogacy •extravagancy • plangency • agency •regency •astringency, contingency, stringency •intransigency • exigency • cogency •pungency •convergency, emergency, insurgency, urgency •vacancy • piquancy • fricassee •mendicancy • efficacy • prolificacy •insignificancy • delicacy • intricacy •advocacy • fallacy • galaxy •jealousy, prelacy •repellency • valency • Wallasey •articulacy • corpulency • inviolacy •excellency • equivalency • pharmacy •supremacy • clemency • Christmassy •illegitimacy, legitimacy •intimacy • ultimacy • primacy •dormancy • diplomacy • contumacy •stagnancy •lieutenancy, subtenancy, tenancy •pregnancy •benignancy, malignancy •effeminacy • prominency •obstinacy • pertinency • lunacy •immanency •impermanency, permanency •rampancy • papacy • flippancy •occupancy •archiepiscopacy, episcopacy •transparency • leprosy • inerrancy •flagrancy, fragrancy, vagrancy •conspiracy • idiosyncrasy •minstrelsy • magistracy • piracy •vibrancy •adhocracy, aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, democracy, gerontocracy, gynaecocracy (US gynecocracy), hierocracy, hypocrisy, meritocracy, mobocracy, monocracy, plutocracy, technocracy, theocracy •accuracy • obduracy • currency •curacy, pleurisy •confederacy • numeracy •degeneracy • itinerancy • inveteracy •illiteracy, literacy •innocency • trenchancy • deficiency •fantasy, phantasy •intestacy • ecstasy • expectancy •latency • chieftaincy • intermittency •consistency, insistency, persistency •instancy • militancy • impenitency •precipitancy • competency •hesitancy • apostasy • constancy •accountancy • adjutancy •consultancy, exultancy •impotency • discourtesy •inadvertency • privacy •irrelevancy, relevancy •solvency • frequency • delinquency •adequacy • poignancy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"galaxy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"galaxy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy-0

"galaxy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/galaxy-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Galaxy

Galaxy

Outside of the galaxy

Classification of galaxies

Elliptical galaxies

Spiral galaxies

Irregular galaxies

Active galaxies

Formation and evolution

Resources

A galaxy is a very large collection of stars, atomic hydrogen gas, cosmic rays, molecular hydrogen, and complex molecules of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, silicon, and others. The word galaxy comes from the Greek word galaxias, or milky circle. The Milky Way galaxy in which the Earths solar system is located is one such galaxy. Astronomers generally classify galaxies according to their shape as either spiral, elliptical, or irregular. Spiral galaxies are further subdivided into normal and barred spirals. Elliptical galaxies can be either giant or dwarf ellipticals, depending on their size. In the 2000s, astronomers using the Hubble Deep Field, part of the Hubble Space Telescope, estimated that about 175 billion galaxies exist in the universe.

Galaxies can contain anywhere from a few million stars, for dwarf ellipticals, to a few trillion stars, for giant ellipticals or spirals. Galaxies emitting far more energy than can easily be explained by a collection of stars are classified as active galaxies. The study of other galaxies, in addition to being intrinsically interesting, helps scientists understand the Milky Way galaxy and gives clues as to the understanding of the universe as a whole.

Outside of the galaxy

Astronomers did not recognize galaxies as separate from the Milky Way until the early part of the twentieth century. The Andromeda galaxy, which is the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are the nearest irregular galaxies to the Milky Way, are visible to the naked eye, and have therefore been observed since antiquity. Their nature was, however, unknown.

With the development of the telescope, astronomers were able to discern the whorled shape of spiral galaxies, which were called spiral nebulae at the time. Until the 1920s, there was a controversy: Were these spiral nebulae part of the Milky Way galaxy, or were they external galaxies similar to the Milky Way? In April 1920, there was a debate on this topic between American astronomers Harlow Shapley (18851972) and Heber Doust Curtis (18721942) before the National Academy of Sciences. Curtis argued that spiral nebulae were external galaxies, Shapley that they were part of the Milky Way. Curtis did not win the debate, but astronomy has since proven him rightspiral nebulae are external galaxies similar to the Milky Way.

To settle the controversy, scientists needed an accurate method to gauge the distance to galaxies. Working at

Harvard College Observatory in the early twentieth century, American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (18681921) found the required celestial yardstick. Leavitt was studying a type of star in the Magellanic Clouds known as a Cepheid variable, when she discovered a way to measure the distance to any Cepheid variable by comparing the stars apparent and absolute magnitudes. The distance to the variable star gave the distance to the galaxy or cluster of stars containing the Cepheid variable. Cepheid variables have since become a fundamental yardstick for measuring the distance scale of the universe.

In 1924, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble (18891953) used Leavitts Cepheid variable technique to measure the distance to the Andromeda galaxy. Hubbles original distance estimates have since been refined; the modern distance to the Andromeda galaxy is about 2.2 million light years. (A light year is the distance light travels in one year within the vacuum of space, about 6 trillion miles, or 9.654 trillion kilometers). The Milky Way galaxy is however only a little over 100,000 light years in diameter. Hubble therefore conclusively proved that the Andromeda galaxy must be outside the Milky Way. Other galaxies are more distant.

With his work, Hubble launched the science of extragalactic astronomythe study of galaxies outside the Milky Way. Hubble devised the classification scheme for galaxies that astronomers still use today. More importantly, Hubble found that more distant galaxies are moving away from the Milky Way at a faster rate. From this observation, known as Hubbles law, he deduced that the universe is expanding. Hubble used his study of galaxies to uncover a fundamental fact about the nature of the universe. Fittingly, one of the scientific goals of the Hubbles namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope, is to continue this work.

Classification of galaxies

Hubble classified the galaxies he observed according to their shape. His scheme is still in use today. The basic regular shapes are elliptical and spiral. He classified galaxies with no regular shape as irregular galaxies. Galaxies that, basically, look like either elliptical or spiral galaxies but have some unusual feature are classified as peculiar galaxies. They are classified according to the closest match in the classification scheme. They are, then, given the added designation peculiar (pec). Hubble initially thought that his classification scheme represented an evolutionary sequence for galaxies; they started as one type and gradually evolved into another type.

Modern astronomers have supplemented Hubbles original scheme with luminosity classes. The luminosity of a galaxy is its total energy output each second. Note that the luminosity refers to the intrinsic energy output of the galaxy corrected for the distance of the galaxy. Therefore a high luminosity but distant galaxy might appear fainter than a nearby low luminosity galaxy. The luminosity classes are the roman numerals I, II, III, IV, and V. The most luminous galaxies are class I, and the least luminous are V. As one might guess, the more luminous galaxies are generally larger in size and contain more stars.

How common are the various types of galaxies? In a given volume of space, about one-third of all the galaxies (34%) are spirals, a little over half (54%) are irregulars, and the rest (12%) are ellipticals. However, irregular and elliptical galaxies tend to be smaller and fainter on the average than spiral galaxies. They are therefore harder to find. Of the galaxies that astronomers can observe the overwhelming majority (77%) are spirals and only 3% are irregular galaxies. The remaining 20% of observed galaxies are ellipticals.

Elliptical galaxies

Elliptical galaxies have a three-dimensional ellipsoidal shape, so they appear in their two dimensional projections on the sky as ellipses. In his scheme, Hubble denoted elliptical galaxies with the letter E. He further subdivided ellipticals according to the amount of elongation of the ellipse, using numbers from 0 to 7. An E0 galaxy appears spherical. The most elongated elliptical galaxies are E7. The E1 through E6 galaxies are intermediate.

Note that this classification is based on the appearance of a galaxy, which may be different from its true shape owing to projection effects on Earth. Since Hubbles time, astronomers have learned that some ellipticals are relatively small and others are large. Astronomers now have the additional classification of either dwarf ellipticals or giant ellipticals. For finer divisions astronomers use the luminosity classes I, for the supergiant ellipticals, down to V for the smallest dwarf ellipticals.

Dwarf elliptical galaxies tend to be fairly small. They average about 30,000 light years in diameter, but can be as small as about 10,000 light years. The diameters of galaxies are a little uncertain because galaxies do not end sharply. Instead, they tend to gradually fade out with increasing distance from the center. By contrast, giant elliptical galaxies average about 150,000 light years in diameter. The largest supergiant ellipticals are a few million light years in diameter.

The dwarf ellipticals have masses ranging from 100,000 to 10 million times the mass of the sun, suggesting that they have about that many stars. Giant ellipticals on the other hand will typically have 10 trillion times the mass of the sun and, therefore, roughly that many stars. Both giant and dwarf elliptical galaxies have only old stars and very small amounts of the interstellar gas and dust that is the raw material for forming new stars, probably due to the loss of gas clouds to star formation during the collisions that formed the elliptical shape.

Spiral galaxies

Spiral galaxies have a disk shape with a bulging central nucleus, so that they look like an astronauts pancake floating in midair with a fried egg in the center on both sides. Surrounding the disk is a spherical halo consisting of globular clustersspherical clusters of roughly 100,000 stars each. The astronauts breakfast has drops of syrup floating in a spherical distribution around the pancake.

The disk of a spiral galaxy contains the spiral arms that give this class of galaxy its name. There are usually two spiral arms that wind around each other several times in a whorl shapefrom the nucleus to the edge of the disk. A few spiral galaxies have more than two spiral arms.

There are two types of spiral galaxies, normal spirals and barred spirals. In the normal spiral galaxies, the spiral arms wind out ward from the nucleus. In barred spirals, there is a central bar structure extending out on either side of the nucleus. The spiral arms wind outward from the edge of this bar structure.

In his classification scheme, Hubble denoted normal spiral galaxies by S and barred spiral galaxies by SB. He, then, subclassified spirals according to how tightly the spiral arms wind around the nucleus, using a, b, and c. Galaxies denoted Sa are the most tightly wound and, therefore, have a relatively small disk compared to the spiral arms. Sc galaxies are the most loosely wound. They, therefore, extend well beyond the nucleus and have a relatively larger disk compared to the nucleus. Sb galaxies are intermediate between the Sa and Sc galaxies. Hubble used a similar scheme for barred spirals, producing the classifications SBa, SBb, and SBc.

Some galaxies have a disk surrounding a nucleus, but do not have spiral arms in the disk. Hubble classified these galaxies as SO. They are now also called lenticular galaxies. As for elliptical galaxies, modern astronomers also add luminosity classes (I, II, III, IV, V) to Hubbles classification scheme. Luminosity class I galaxies are the most luminous and are referred to as supergiant spirals. Luminosity class V galaxies are the least luminous.

The luminosity classes of spiral galaxies do not have as wide a range as elliptical galaxies, so there are no dwarf spiral galaxies. Spiral galaxies are typically about the size of the Milky Way, roughly 100,000 light years in diameter. They will typically have a mass of about 100 billion times the mass of the Sum, so will contain roughly 100 billion stars. The largest super-giant spirals can have as much as several trillion times the mass of the sun.

Spiral galaxies contain fairly young stars in their disks and spiral arms and older stars in their nuclei and halos. The disks and spiral arms also contain interstellar gas and dust, which are the raw materials for forming new stars. The halos-like elliptical galaxies contain very little gas and dust. This difference in the distribution of the contents of spiral galaxies tells astronomers that they were originally spherical in shape. The rotation of these galaxies caused them to flatten out and form their disks.

Irregular galaxies

Hubble classified galaxies that do not fit neatly into his scheme of ellipticals and spirals as irregular (Irr) galaxies. Irregular galaxies as a class have no particular shape, and have no spherical or circular symmetries as the ellipticals and spirals do. There is a range of sizes, but irregulars tend to be small. They average about 20,000 light years in diameter. The smallest irregulars, dwarf irregulars, are only about 1,000 light years in diameter.

Because they are relatively small, irregular galaxies have small masses (typically about one million times the mass of the sun) and therefore relatively few stars. Astronomers now classify irregular galaxies into two groups, Irr I and Irr II. In Irr I galaxies, astronomers can resolve young stars and evidence of ongoing star formation. In Irr II galaxies, astronomers cannot resolve individual stars. They also have no distinct shape. Both types of irregular galaxies contain a large percentage of young stars and interstellar gas and dust.

Active galaxies

Many galaxies look almost like one of the Hubble classifications, but with some unusual feature. For example, imagine an elliptical galaxy that looks like someone sliced it through the center, pulled it apart a little bit, and displaced each half sideways. Hubble called these galaxies peculiar and added the designation, pec, to the classification. The galaxy described above might be an E0 pec galaxy. Whatever causes a galaxy to look as if it were ripped apart as described above would require large amounts of energy. Peculiar galaxies are therefore interesting because they often tend to be the active galaxies that emit large amounts of energy.

Active galaxies are galaxies that emit far more energy than normal galaxies. A galaxy is considered an active galaxy if it emits more than 100 times the energy of the Milky Way galaxy. Active galaxies often have a very compact central source of energy, much of which is emitted as radio waves rather than optical light. These radio waves are emitted by electrons moving in a helical path in a strong magnetic field at speeds near the speed of light. Active galaxies also often have a peculiar photographic appearance, which can include jets of material streaming out from the nucleus or the appearance of either explosions or implosions. They also tend to vary erratically in brightness on rapid time scales. There are a number of varieties of active galaxies, including: compact radio galaxies, extended radio galaxies, Seyfert galaxies, BL Lacertac objects, and quasars.

Compact radio galaxies appear photographically as ordinary giant elliptical galaxies. Radio telescopes, however, reveal a very energetic compact nucleus at the center. This radio nucleus is the source of most of the energy emitted by the galaxy.

Perhaps the best known compact radio galaxy is M87. This giant elliptical galaxy has both a very compact energetic radio source in the nucleus and a jet consisting of globs of material shooting out from the nucleus. Recent observations from the Hubble Space Telescope provide strong evidence that this core contains a supermassive black hole.

Extended radio galaxies consist of two giant lobes emitting radio waves. These lobes are on either side of a peculiar elliptical galaxy. The lobes can appear straight or curved as if the galaxy is moving through space. These lobes are the largest known galaxies and can stretch for millions of light years.

Seyfert galaxies look like spiral galaxies with a hyperactive nucleus. The spiral arms appear normal photographically, but they surround an abnormally bright nucleus. Seyfert galaxies also have evidence for hot turbulent interstellar gas.

BL Lacertae objects look like stars. In reality, they are most likely to be very active nuclei of elliptical galaxies. However, BL Lacertae objects have sufficiently unusual behavior, including extremely rapid and erratic variations in observed properties, that their exact nature is not known for certain.

Quasars also look like stars, but they are perhaps the most distant and energetic objects in the universe known so far. Most astronomers consider them the very active nuclei of distant galaxies in the early stages of evolution. As for the other types of active galaxies, they produce large amounts of energy in a very small volume. Most astronomers currently think that the energy source is a supermassive black hole. Astronomers found evidence in 1998 that the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which is about 28,000 light years from Earth, contains a black hole that is several million times the mass of the sun. Other discoveries in the next few years lent credence that other black holes were at the center of other galaxies. Then, in June 2004, a

KEY TERMS

Active galaxy A galaxy that emits more energy than can easily be explained, usually at least 100 times the energy output of the Milky Way.

Barred spiral galaxy A spiral galaxy in which the spiral arms start at the end of a central bar structure rather than the nucleus.

Cepheid variable star A type of star that varies in brightness as the star pulsates in size. Cepheid variables are important distance yardsticks in establishing the distance to nearby galaxies.

Disk The flat disk-shaped part of a spiral galaxy that contains the spiral arms.

Elliptical galaxy A galaxy having an elliptical shape.

Galaxy A large collection of stars and clusters of stars, containing anywhere from a few million to a few trillion stars.

Halo A spherical distribution of older stars and clusters of stars surrounding the nucleus and disk of a spiral galaxy.

Irregular galaxy A galaxy that does not fit into Hubbles classification scheme of elliptical and spiral galaxies.

Light year The distance light travels in one year, roughly 6 trillion miles, or 9,654 trillion kilometers.

Milky Way The galaxy in which Earth is located.

Nucleus The central core of a galaxy.

Spiral arms The regions where stars are concentrated that spiral out from the center of a spiral galaxy.

Spiral galaxy A galaxy in which spiral arms wind outward from the nucleus.

black hole was discovered, which scientists believe helps to confirm that gigantic black holes were created early in the formation of the universe. In 2005, a black hole was discovered to be traveling at twice the escape velocity of the galaxy as it exited the Milky Way. Scientists think that such a black hole may help to support the theory that a black hole exists in the center of the Milky Way galaxy and other galaxies within the universe.

Formation and evolution

For many years scientists had no ideas how galaxies formed. According to all observations at the time, galaxies formed during a single epoch very far back in the history of the universe. In the absence of direct evidence, astronomers formed two theories: the theory of accretion, in which blobs of stars came together to form galaxies; and the theory of collapse, in which galaxies were formed in the collapse of an enormous gas cloud.

In late 1996, scientists got their first view of galaxy formation, looking back in time 11 billion years to see clumps of young star clusters gradually banding together into a galaxy. It is too early to fully dismiss the gas collapse theory, however; there may be more than one way to form a galaxy.

When Hubble first devised his classification scheme, he thought that the different types of galaxies represented different evolutionary stages; they started as one type and gradually evolved into another type. Astronomers now know that his theory was true, though the phrase gradual evolution is something of a misnomer.

Elliptical galaxies are formed by the collision of two spiral galaxies. The process is slowscientists estimate that it takes nearly one-half billion years for the merging spiral galaxies to smooth into an elliptical galaxybut can be quite violent. Although galaxies are mostly empty space, gravitational interaction between stars can cause them to explode into supernovas. More important, gravitationally induced collisions between clouds of interstellar hydrogen gas can create intense heat and pressure that can trigger the formation of new stars.

One clue to the evolution of galaxies is the distribution of different types of galaxies at different distances from the Milky Way. Because light travels at a finite speed, when astronomers look at a distant galaxy, they are seeing the galaxy as it appeared in the distant past when the light left it. Some types of active galaxies, such as quasars and BL Lacertae objects, occur only at great distances from the Earth. They existed when the universe was much younger, but no longer exist. Many astronomers, therefore, think that active galaxies are an early stage in the evolution of galaxies. If this idea is correct, an astronomer living now on a distant quasar might see the quasar as a normal galaxy, and the Milky Way in its earlier active stage as a quasar.

However galaxies formed and evolved, the process must have occurred quickly very early in the history of the universe. The age of the oldest galaxies appears to be not much younger than the age of the universe. Though astronomers now have some support for theories of galactic formation and evolution, they are still searching for more evidence and trying to understand the details.

See also Radio astronomy.

Resources

BOOKS

Arny, Thomas. Explorations: An Introduction to Astronomy. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Aveni, Anthony F. Uncommon Sense: Understanding Natures Truths Across Time and Culture. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2006.

Bacon, Dennis Henry, and Percy Seymour. A Mechanical History of the Universe. London: Philip Wilson Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Chaisson, Eric. Astronomy: A Beginners Guide to the Universe. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004.

Eckart, Andreas. The Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way. London, UK: Imperial College Press, 2005.

Freedman, Roger A. Universe, Stars, and Galaxies. New York: W.H. Freeman, 2005.

Kundt, Wolfgang. Astrophysics: A New Approach. Berlin and New York: Springer, 2005.

Zelik, Michael.Astronomy: The Evolving Universe. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Paul A. Heckert

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Galaxy." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Galaxy." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy

"Galaxy." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Galaxy

Galaxy

A galaxy is a large collection of stars similar to the Milky Way galaxy in which our solar system is located. Astronomers classify galaxies according to their shape as either spiral , elliptical, or irregular. Spiral galaxies are further subdivided into normal and barred spirals. Elliptical galaxies can be either giant or dwarf ellipticals, depending on their size.

Galaxies can contain anywhere from a few million stars, for dwarf ellipticals, to a few trillion stars, for giant ellipticals or spirals. Galaxies emitting far more energy than can easily be explained by a collection of stars are classified as active galaxies. The study of other galaxies in addition to being intrinsically interesting both helps us understand our own Milky Way galaxy and gives us clues to understanding the universe as a whole.


Outside of the galaxy

Astronomers did not recognize galaxies as separate from the Milky Way until the early part of the twentieth century. The Andromeda Galaxy, which is the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are the nearest irregular galaxies to the Milky Way, are visible to the naked eye , and have therefore been observed since antiquity. Their nature was, however, unknown.

With the development of the telescope , astronomers were able to discern the whorled shape of spiral galaxies, which were called spiral nebulae at the time. Until the 1920s, there was a controversy: Were these "spiral nebulae" part of our Milky Way galaxy, or were they external galaxies similar to our Milky Way? In April 1920, there was a debate on this topic between Harlow Shapley and Heber D. Curtis before the National Academy of Sciences. Curtis argued that spiral nebulae were external galaxies, Shapley that they were part of the Milky Way. Curtis did not win the debate, but astronomy has since proven him right—"spiral nebulae" are external galaxies similar to the Milky Way.

To settle the controvery, scientists needed an accurate method to gauge the distance to galaxies. Working at Harvard College Observatory in the early twentieth century, the American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) found the required celestial yardstick. Leavitt was studying a type of star in the Magellanic Clouds known as a Cepheid variable, when she discovered a way to measure the distance to any Cepheid variable by comparing the star's apparent and absolute magnitudes. The distance to the variable star gave the distance to the galaxy or cluster of stars containing the Cepheid variable. Cepheid variables have since become a fundamental yardstick for measuring the distance scale of the universe.

In 1924, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) used Leavitt's Cepheid variable technique to measure the distance to the Andromeda galaxy. Hubble's original distance estimates have since been refined; the modern distance to the Andromeda galaxy is about 2.2 million light years. (A light year is the distance light can travel in one year, about 6 trillion mi, or 9.654 trillion km). The Milky Way galaxy is however only a little over 100,000 light years in diameter. Hubble therefore conclusively proved that the Andromeda galaxy must be outside the Milky Way. Other galaxies are more distant.

With his work, Hubble launched the science of extragalactic astronomy—the study of galaxies outside the Milky Way. Hubble devised the classification scheme for galaxies that astronomers still use today. More importantly, Hubble found that more distant galaxies are moving away from us at a faster rate . From this observation, known as Hubble's law, he deduced that the universe is expanding. Hubble used his study of galaxies to uncover a fundamental fact about the nature of the universe. Fittingly, one of the scientific goals of the Hubble's namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope , is to continue this work.


Classification of galaxies

Hubble classified the galaxies he observed according to their shape. His scheme is still in use today. The basic regular shapes are elliptical and spiral. He classified galaxies with no regular shape as irregular galaxies. Galaxies that basically look like either elliptical or spiral galaxies but have some unusual feature are classified as peculiar galaxies. They are classified according to the closest match in the classification scheme then given the added designation peculiar (pec). Hubble initially thought that his classification scheme represented an evolutionary sequence for galaxies; they started as one type and gradually evolved into another type.

Modern astronomers have supplemented Hubble's original scheme with luminosity classes. The luminosity of a galaxy is its total energy output each second. Note that the luminosity refers to the intrinsic energy output of the galaxy corrected for the distance of the galaxy. Therefore a high luminosity but distant galaxy might appear fainter than a nearby low luminosity galaxy. The luminosity classes are the roman numerals I, II, III, IV, and V. The most luminous galaxies are class I, and the least luminous are V. As one might guess, the more luminous galaxies are generally larger in size and contain more stars.

How common are the various types of galaxies? In a given volume of space , about one third of all the galaxies (34%) are spirals, a little over half (54%) are irregulars, and the rest (12%) are ellipticals. However irregular and elliptical galaxies tend to be smaller and fainter on the average than spiral galaxies. They are therefore harder to find. Of the galaxies that we can observe the overwhelming majority (77%) are spirals and only 3% are irregular galaxies. The remaining 20% of observed galaxies are ellipticals.


Elliptical galaxies

Elliptical galaxies have a three-dimensional ellipsoidal shape, so they appear in their two dimensional projections on the sky as ellipses. In his scheme, Hubble denoted elliptical galaxies with the letter E. He further subdivided ellipticals according to the amount of elongation of the ellipse , using numbers from 0 to 7. An E0 galaxy appears spherical. The most elongated elliptical galaxies are E7. The E1 through E6 galaxies are intermediate.

Note that this classification is based on the appearance of a galaxy, which may be different from its true shape owing to projection effects. Since Hubble's time, astronomers have learned that some ellipticals are relatively small and others are large. We now have the additional classification of either dwarf ellipticals or giant ellipticals. For finer divisions astronomers use the luminosity classes I, for the supergiant ellipticals, down to V for the smallest dwarf ellipticals.

Dwarf elliptical galaxies tend to be fairly small. They average about 30,000 light years in diameter, but can be as small as about 10,000 light years. The diameters of galaxies are a little uncertain because galaxies do not end sharply. Instead, they tend to gradually fade out with increasing distance from the center. By contrast, Giant elliptical galaxies average about 150,000 light years in diameter. The largest supergiant ellipticals are a few million light years in diameter.

The dwarf ellipticals have masses ranging from 100,000 to 10 million times the mass of the sun , suggesting that they have about that many stars. Giant ellipticals on the other hand will typically have 10 trillion times the mass of the sun and therefore roughly that many stars. Both giant and dwarf elliptical galaxies have only old stars and very small amounts of the interstellar gas and dust that is the raw material for forming new stars, probably due to the loss of gas clouds to star formation during the collisions that formed the elliptical shape.


Spiral galaxies

Spiral galaxies have a disk shape with a bulging central nucleus, so that they look like an astronaut's pancake floating in midair with a fried egg in the center on both sides. Surrounding the disk is a spherical halo consisting of globular clusters—spherical clusters of roughly 100,000 stars each. The astronaut's breakfast has drops of syrup floating in a spherical distribution around the pancake.

The disk of a spiral galaxy contains the spiral arms that give class of galaxy its name. There are usually two spiral arms that wind around each other several times in a whorl from the nucleus to the edge of the disk. A few spiral galaxies have more than two spiral arms.

There are two types of spiral galaxies, normal spirals and barred spirals. In the normal spiral galaxies, the spiral arms wind outward from the nucleus. In barred spirals, there is a central bar structure extending out on either side of the nucleus. The spiral arms wind outward from the edge of this bar structure.

In his classification scheme, Hubble denoted normal spiral galaxies by S and barred spiral galaxies by SB. He then subclassified spirals according to how tightly the spiral arms wind around the nucleus, using a, b, and c. Galaxies denoted Sa are the most tightly wound and therefore have a relatively small disk compared to the spiral arms. Sc galaxies are the most loosely wound. They therefore extend well beyond the nucleus and have a relatively larger disk compared to the nucleus. Sb galaxies are intermediate between the Sa and Sc galaxies. Hubble used a similar scheme for barred spirals, producing the classifications SBa, SBb, and SBc.

Some galaxies have a disk surrounding a nucleus, but do not have spiral arms in the disk. Hubble classified these galaxies as SO. They are now also called lenticular galaxies. As for elliptical galaxies, modern astronomers also add luminosity classes (I, II, III, IV, V) to Hubble's classification scheme. Luminosity class I galaxies are the most luminous and are referred to as supergiant spirals. Luminosity class V galaxies are the least luminous.

The luminosity classes of spiral galaxies do not have as wide a range as elliptical galaxies, so there are no dwarf spiral galaxies. Spiral galaxies are typically about the size of the Milky Way, roughly 100,000 light years in diameter. They will typically have a mass of about 100 billion times the mass of the sum, so will contain roughly 100 billion stars. The largest supergiant spirals can have as much as several trillion times the mass of the sun.

Spiral galaxies contain fairly young stars in their disks and spiral arms and older stars in their nuclei and halos. The disks and spiral arms also contain interstellar gas and dust, which are the raw materials for forming new stars. The halos like elliptical galaxies contain very little gas and dust. This difference in the distribution of the contents of spiral galaxies tells us that they were originally spherical in shape. The rotation of these galaxies caused them to flatten out and form their disks.


Irregular galaxies

Hubble classified galaxies that do not fit neatly into his scheme of ellipticals and spirals as irregular (Irr) galaxies. Irregular galaxies as a class have no particular shape, and have no spherical or circular symmetries as the ellipticals and spirals do. There is a range of sizes, but irregulars tend to be small. They average about 20,000 light years in diameter. The smallest irregulars, dwarf irregulars, are only about 1,000 light years in diameter.

Because they are relatively small, irregular galaxies have small masses (typically about one million times the mass of the sun) and therefore relatively few stars. Astronomers now classify irregular galaxies into two groups, Irr I and Irr II. In Irr I galaxies, we can resolve young stars and evidence of ongoing star formation. In Irr II galaxies, we cannot resolve individual stars. They also have no distinct shape. Both types of irregular galaxies contain a large percentage of young stars and interstellar gas and dust.


Active galaxies

Many galaxies look almost like one of the Hubble classifications, but with some unusual feature. For example, imagine an elliptical galaxy that looks like someone sliced it through the center, pulled it apart a little bit, and displaced each half sideways. Hubble called these galaxies peculiar and added the designation, pec, to the classification. The galaxy described above might be an E0 pec galaxy. Whatever causes a galaxy to look as if it were ripped apart as described above would require large amounts of energy. Peculiar galaxies are therefore interesting because they often tend to be the active galaxies that emit large amounts of energy.

Active galaxies are galaxies that emit far more energy than normal galaxies. A galaxy is considered an active galaxy if it emits more than 100 times the energy of the Milky Way galaxy. Active galaxies often have a very compact central source of energy, much of which is emitted as radio waves rather than optical light. These radio waves are emitted by electrons moving in a helical path in a strong magnetic field at speeds near the speed of light. Active galaxies also often have a peculiar photographic appearance, which can include jets of material streaming out from the nucleus or the appearance of either explosions or implosions. They also tend to vary erratically in brightness on rapid time scales. There are a number of varieties of active galaxies, including: compact radio galaxies, extended radio galaxies, Seyfert galaxies, BL Lacertae objects, and quasars.

Compact radio galaxies appear photographically as ordinary giant elliptical galaxies. Radio telescopes however reveal a very energetic compact nucleus at the center. This radio nucleus is the source of most of the energy emitted by the galaxy.

Perhaps the best known compact radio galaxy is M87. This giant elliptical galaxy has both a very compact energetic radio source in the nucleus and a jet consisting of globs of material shooting out from the nucleus. Recent observations from the Hubble Space Telescope provide strong evidence that this core contains a supermassive black hole .

Extended radio galaxies consist of two giant lobes emitting radio waves. These lobes are on either side of a peculiar elliptical galaxy. The lobes can appear straight or curved as if the galaxy is moving through space. These lobes are the largest known galaxies and can stretch for millions of light years.

Seyfert galaxies look like spiral galaxies with a hyperactive nucleus. The spiral arms appear normal photographically, but they surround an abnormally bright nucleus. Seyfert galaxies also have evidence for hot turbulent interstellar gas.

BL Lacertae objects look like stars. In reality they are most likely to be very active nuclei of elliptical galaxies. However, BL Lacertae objects have sufficiently unusual behavior , including extremely rapid and erratic variations in observed properties, that their exact nature is not known for certain.

Quasars also look like stars, but they are perhaps the most distant and energetic objects in the universe known so far. Most astronomers consider them the very active nuclei of distant galaxies in the early stages of evolution . As for the other types of active galaxies they produce large amounts of energy in a very small volume. Most astronomers currently think that the energy source is a supermassive black hole.


Formation and evolution

For many years scientists had no ideas how galaxies formed. According to all observations at the time, galaxies formed during a single epoch very far back in the history of the universe. In the absence of direct evidence, astronomers formed two theories: the theory of accretion, in which blobs of stars came together to form galaxies; and the theory of collapse, in which galaxies were formed in the collapse of an enormous gas cloud.

In late 1996, scientists got their first view of galaxy formation, looking back in time 11 billion years to see clumps of young star clusters gradually banding together into a galaxy. It is too early to fully dismiss the gas collapse theory, however; there may be more than one way to form a galaxy.

When Hubble first devised his classification scheme, he thought that the different types of galaxies represented different evolutionary stages; they started as one type and gradually evolved into another type. We now know that his theory was true, though the phrase gradual evolution is something of a misnomer.

Elliptical galaxies are formed by the collison of two spiral galaxies. The process is slow—scientists estimate that it takes nearly half a billion years for the merging spiral galaxies to smooth into an elliptical galaxy—but can be quite violent. Although galaxies are mostly empty space, gravitational interaction between stars can cause them to explode into supernovas. More important, gravitationally induced collisions between clouds of interstellarhydrogen gas can create intense heat and pressure that can trigger the formation of new stars.

One clue to the evolution of galaxies is the distribution of different types of galaxies at different distances from us. Because light travels at a finite speed, when we look at a distant galaxy, we are seeing the galaxy as it appeared in the distant past when the light left it. Some types of active galaxies, such as quasars and BL Lax objects, occur only at great distances from us. They existed when the universe was much younger, but no longer exist. Many astronomers therefore think that active galaxies are an early stage in the evolution of galaxies. If this idea is correct, an astronomer living now on a distant quasar might see the quasar as a normal galaxy, and the Milky Way in its earlier active stage as a quasar.

However galaxies formed and evolved, the process must have occurred quickly very early in the history of the universe. The age of the oldest galaxies appears to be not much younger than the age of the universe . Though astronomers now have some support for theories of galactic formation and evolution, they are still searching for more evidence and trying to understand the details.

See also Radio astronomy.


Resources

books

Bacon, Dennis Henry, and Percy Seymour. A Mechanical History of the Universe. London: Philip Wilson Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Bartusiak, Marcia. Thursday's Universe. Redmond, WA: Tempus Books, 1988.

Hodge, Paul. Galaxies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Morrison, David, Sidney Wolff, and Andrew Fraknoi. Abell'sExploration of the Universe. 7th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing, 1995.

Smolin, Lee. The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Snow, Theodore P. The Dynamic Universe: An Introduction toAstronomy. St. Paul: West Publishing, 1991.

periodicals

Cowen, Ron. "The Debut of Galaxies." Astronomy 22 (December 1994): 44-45.

Eicher, David J. "The Wonderful World of Galaxies." Astronomy 21 (January 1993): 60-66.

Lake, George. "Understanding the Hubble Sequence." Sky &Telescope 83 (May 1992): 515-21.


Paul A. Heckert

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Active galaxy

—A galaxy that emits more energy than can easily be explained, usually at least 100 times the energy output of the Milky Way.

Barred spiral galaxy

—A spiral galaxy in which the spiral arms start at the end of a central bar structure rather than the nucleus.

Cepheid variable star

—A type of star that varies in brightness as the star pulsates in size. Cepheid variables are important distance yardsticks in establishing the distance to nearby galaxies.

Disk

—The flat disk-shaped part of a spiral galaxy that contains the spiral arms.

Elliptical galaxy

—A galaxy having an elliptical shape.

Galaxy

—A large collection of stars and clusters of stars, containing anywhere from a few million to a few trillion stars.

Halo

—A spherical distribution of older stars and clusters of stars surrounding the nucleus and disk of a spiral galaxy.

Irregular galaxy

—A galaxy that does not fit into Hubble's classification scheme of elliptical and spiral galaxies.

Light year

—The distance light travels in one year, roughly 6 trillion mi, or 9,654 trillion km.

Milky Way

—The galaxy in which we are located.

Nucleus

—The central core of a galaxy.

Spiral arms

—The regions where stars are concentrated that spiral out from the center of a spiral galaxy.

Spiral galaxy

—A galaxy in which spiral arms wind outward from the nucleus.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Galaxy." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Galaxy." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy-0

"Galaxy." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galaxy-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.