An Introduction to Galaxies

NGC 4414, a typical spiral galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices, is about 55,000 light-years in diameter and approximately 60 million light-years away from Earth. NASA
NGC 4414, a typical spiral galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices, is about 55,000 light-years in diameter and approximately 60 million light-years away from Earth. NASA

Galaxies 101:

A galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and, dark matter, an important but poorly understood component. The word galaxy is derived from the Greek galaxias (γαλαξίας), literally “milky”, a reference to the Milky Way. Examples of galaxies range from dwarfs with as few as ten million (107) stars to giants with a hundred trillion (1014) stars, each orbiting their galaxy’s own center of mass.

Galaxies contain varying numbers of star systems, star clusters and types of interstellar clouds. In between these objects is a sparse interstellar medium of gas, dust, and cosmic rays. Supermassive black holes reside at the center of all galaxies. They are thought to be the primary driver of active galactic nuclei found at the core of some galaxies. The Milky Way galaxy is known to harbor at least one such object.

Galaxies have been historically categorized according to their apparent shape, usually referred to as their visual morphology. A common form is the elliptical galaxy, which has an ellipse-shaped light profile. Spiral galaxies are disk-shaped with dusty, curving arms. Those with irregular or unusual shapes are known as irregular galaxies and typically originate from disruption by the gravitational pull of neighboring galaxies. Such interactions between nearby galaxies, which may ultimately result in a merger, sometimes induce significantly increased incidents of star formation leading to starburst galaxies. Smaller galaxies lacking a coherent structure are referred to as irregular galaxies.

There are probably more than 170 billion (1.7 × 1011) galaxies in the observable universe. Most are 1,000 to 100,000 parsecs in diameter and usually separated by distances on the order of millions of parsecs (or megaparsecs). Intergalactic space (the space between galaxies) is filled with a tenuous gas of an average density less than one atom per cubic meter. The majority of galaxies are organized into a hierarchy of associations known as groups and clusters, which, in turn usually form larger superclusters. At the largest scale, these associations are generally arranged into sheets and filaments, which are surrounded by immense voids.

On December 12, 2012, astronomers, working with the Hubble Space Telescope, reported that the most distant known galaxy, UDFj-39546284, is now estimated to be even further away than previously believed. The galaxy, which is estimated to have formed around “380 million years” after the Big Bang (about 13.8 billion years ago), and has a z (redshift) of 11.9 is approximately 13.42 billion light years from Earth.

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