A galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and dark matter. The name is from the Greek root galaxias [γαλαξίας], meaning "milky," a reference to the Milky Way galaxy. Typical galaxies range from dwarfs with as few as ten million (107) stars up to giants with one trillion (1012) stars, all orbiting a common center of mass. Galaxies can also contain many multiple star systems, star clusters, and various interstellar clouds. The Sun is one of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy; the Solar System includes the Earth and all the other objects that orbit the Sun.
Historically, galaxies have been 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 assemblages with curving, dusty arms. Galaxies with irregular or unusual shapes are known as peculiar galaxies, and typically result from disruption by the gravitational pull of neighboring galaxies. Such interactions between nearby galaxies, which may ultimately result in galaxies merging, may induce episodes of significantly increased star formation, producing what is called a starburst galaxy. Small galaxies that lack a coherent structure could also be referred to as irregular galaxies.
There are probably more than 100 billion (1011) galaxies in the observable universe. Most galaxies are 1,000 to 100,000 parsecs in diameter and are 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 called clusters, which, in turn, can form larger groups called superclusters. These larger structures are generally arranged into sheets and filaments, which surround immense voids in the universe.
Although it is not yet well understood, dark matter appears to account for around 90% of the mass of most galaxies. Observational data suggests that supermassive black holes may exist at the center of many, if not all, galaxies. They are proposed to be the primary cause of active galactic nuclei found at the core of some galaxies. The Milky Way galaxy appears to harbor at least one such object within its nucleus.
In the astronomical literature, the capitalized word 'Galaxy' is used to refer to our (Milky Way) galaxy, to distinguish it from the billions of other galaxies.
The term Milky Way first appeared in the English language in a poem by Chaucer.
When William Herschel constructed his catalog of deep sky objects, he used the name spiral nebula for certain objects such as M31. These would later be recognized as immense conglomerations of stars, when the true distance to these objects began to be appreciated, and they would be termed island universes. However, the word universe was understood to mean the entirety of existence, so this expression fell into disuse and the objects instead became known as galaxies.
The Persian astronomer, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (973-1048), proposed the Milky Way galaxy to be a collection of countless nebulous stars. Avempace (d. 1138) proposed the Milky Way to be made up of many stars but appears to be a continuous image due to the effect of refraction in the Earth's atmosphere. Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (1292-1350) proposed the Milky Way galaxy to be "a myriad of tiny stars packed together in the sphere of the fixed stars" and that these stars are larger than planets.
Actual proof of the Milky Way consisting of many stars came in 1610 when Galileo Galilei used a telescope to study the Milky Way and discovered that it is composed of a huge number of faint stars. In 1750 Thomas Wright, in his An original theory or new hypothesis of the universe, speculated (correctly) that the Galaxy might be a rotating body of a huge number of stars held together by gravitational forces, akin to the solar system but on a much larger scale. The resulting disk of stars can be seen as a band on the sky from our perspective inside the disk. In a treatise in 1755, Immanuel Kant, elaborated on Wright's idea about the structure of the Milky Way.
The first attempt to describe the shape of the Milky Way and the position of the Sun in it was carried out by William Herschel in 1785 by carefully counting the number of stars in different regions of the sky. He produced a diagram of the shape of the galaxy with the solar system close to the center. Using a refined approach, Kapteyn in 1920 arrived at the picture of a small (diameter about 15 kiloparsecs) ellipsoid galaxy with the Sun close to the center. A different method by Harlow Shapley based on the cataloguing of globular clusters led to a radically different picture: a flat disk with diameter approximately 70 kiloparsecs and the Sun far from the center. Both analyses failed to take into account the absorption of light by interstellar dust present in the galactic plane, but after Robert Julius Trumpler quantified this effect in 1930 by studying open clusters, the present picture of our galaxy, the Milky Way, emerged.
In the 10th century, the Persian astronomer, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (known in the West as Azophi), made the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy, describing it as a "small cloud". Al-Sufi also identified the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible from Yemen, though not from Isfahan; it was not seen by Europeans until Magellan's voyage in the 16th century. These were the first galaxies other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. Al-Sufi published his findings in his Book of Fixed Stars in 964.
In 1054, the creation of the Crab Nebula resulting from the SN 1054 supernova was observed by Chinese and Arab/Persian astronomers. The Crab Nebula itself was observed centuries later by John Bevis in 1731, followed by Charles Messier in 1758 and then by the Earl of Rosse in the 1840s.
In 1750 Thomas Wright, in his An original theory or new hypothesis of the universe, speculated (correctly) that some of the nebulae visible in the night sky might be separate galaxies. In 1755 Immanuel Kant introduced the term "island universe" for these distant nebulae.
Toward the end of the 18th century, Charles Messier compiled a catalog containing the 109 brightest nebulae (celestial objects with a nebulous appearance), later followed by a larger catalog of 5,000 nebulae assembled by William Herschel. In 1845, Lord Rosse constructed a new telescope and was able to distinguish between elliptical and spiral nebulae. He also managed to make out individual point sources in some of these nebulae, lending credence to Kant's earlier conjecture.
In 1917, Heber Curtis had observed the nova S Andromedae within the "Great Andromeda Nebula" (Messier object M31). Searching the photographic record, he found 11 more novae. Curtis noticed that these novae were, on average, 10 magnitudes fainter than those that occurred within our galaxy. As a result he was able to come up with a distance estimate of 150,000 parsecs. He became a proponent of the so-called "island universes" hypothesis, which holds that spiral nebulae are actually independent galaxies.
In 1920 the so-called Great Debate took place between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, concerning the nature of the Milky Way, spiral nebulae, and the dimensions of the universe. To support his claim that the Great Andromeda Nebula was an external galaxy, Curtis noted the appearance of dark lanes resembling the dust clouds in the Milky Way, as well as the significant Doppler shift.
The matter was conclusively settled by Edwin Hubble in the early 1920s using a new telescope. He was able to resolve the outer parts of some spiral nebulae as collections of individual stars and identified some Cepheid variables, thus allowing him to estimate the distance to the nebulae: they were far too distant to be part of the Milky Way. In 1936 Hubble produced a classification system for galaxies that is used to this day, the Hubble sequence.
In the 1970s it was discovered in Vera Rubin's study of the rotation speed of gas in galaxies that the total visible mass (from the stars and gas) does not properly account for the speed of the rotating gas. This galaxy rotation problem is thought to be explained by the presence of large quantities of unseen dark matter.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Hubble Space Telescope yielded improved observations. Among other things, it established that the missing dark matter in our galaxy cannot solely consist of inherently faint and small stars. The Hubble Deep Field, an extremely long exposure of a relatively empty part of the sky, provided evidence that there are about 125 billion galaxies in the universe. Improved technology in detecting the spectra invisible to humans (radio telescopes, infrared cameras, and x-ray telescopes) allow detection of other galaxies that are not detected by Hubble. Particularly, galaxy surveys in the zone of avoidance (the region of the sky blocked by the Milky Way) have revealed a number of new galaxies.
Galaxies come in three main types: ellipticals, spirals, and irregulars. A slightly more extensive description of galaxy types based on their appearance is given by the Hubble sequence. Since the Hubble sequence is entirely based upon visual morphological type, it may miss certain important characteristics of galaxies such as star formation rate (in starburst galaxies) and activity in the core (in active galaxies).
The largest galaxies are giant ellipticals. Many elliptical galaxies are believed to form due to the interaction of galaxies, resulting in a collision and merger. They can grow to enormous sizes (compared to spiral galaxies, for example), and giant elliptical galaxies are often found near the core of large galaxy clusters. Starburst galaxies are the result of such a galactic collision that can result in the formation of an elliptical galaxy.
Spiral galaxies consist of a rotating disk of stars and interstellar medium, along with a central bulge of generally older stars. Extending outward from the bulge are relatively bright arms. In the Hubble classification scheme, spiral galaxies are listed as type S, followed by a letter (a, b, or c) that indicates the degree of tightness of the spiral arms and the size of the central bulge. An Sa galaxy has tightly wound, poorly-defined arms and possesses a relatively large core region. At the other extreme, an Sc galaxy has open, well-defined arms and a small core region.
In spiral galaxies, the spiral arms do have the shape of approximate logarithmic spirals, a pattern that can be theoretically shown to result from a disturbance in a uniformly rotating mass of stars. Like the stars, the spiral arms also rotate around the center, but they do so with constant angular velocity. That means that stars pass in and out of spiral arms, with stars near the galactic core orbiting faster than the arms are moving while stars near the outer parts of the galaxy typically orbit more slowly than the arms. The spiral arms are thought to be areas of high density matter, or "density waves". As stars move through an arm, the space velocity of each stellar system is modified by the gravitational force of the higher density. (The velocity returns to normal after the stars depart on the other side of the arm.) This effect is akin to a "wave" of slowdowns moving along a highway full of moving cars. The arms are visible because the high density facilitates star formation, and therefore they harbor many bright and young stars.
A majority of spiral galaxies have a linear, bar-shaped band of stars that extends outward to either side of the core, then merges into the spiral arm structure. In the Hubble classification scheme, these are designated by an SB, followed by a lower-case letter (a, b or c) that indicates the form of the spiral arms (in the same manner as the categorization of normal spiral galaxies). Bars are thought to be temporary structures that can occur as a result of a density wave radiating outward from the core, or else due to a tidal interaction with another galaxy. Many barred spiral galaxies are active, possibly as a result of gas being channeled into the core along the arms.
Our own galaxy is a large disk-shaped barred-spiral galaxy about 30 kiloparsecs in diameter and a kiloparsec in thickness. It contains about two hundred billion (2×1011) stars and has a total mass of about six hundred billion (6×1011) times the mass of the Sun.
Peculiar galaxies are galactic formations that develop unusual properties due to tidal interactions with other galaxies. An example of this is the ring galaxy, which possesses a ring-like structure of stars and interstellar medium surrounding a bare core. A ring galaxy is thought to occur when a smaller galaxy passes through the core of a spiral galaxy. Such an event may have affected the Andromeda Galaxy, as it displays a multi-ring-like structure when viewed in infrared radiation.
A lenticular galaxy is an intermediate form that has properties of both elliptical and spiral galaxies. These are categorized as Hubble type S0, and they possess ill-defined spiral arms with an elliptical halo of stars. (Barred lenticular galaxies receive Hubble classification SB0.)
In addition to the classifications mentioned above, there are a number of galaxies that can not be readily classified into an elliptical or spiral morphology. These are categorized as irregular galaxies. An Irr-I galaxy has some structure but does not align cleanly with the Hubble classification scheme. Irr-II galaxies do not possess any structure that resembles a Hubble classification, and may have been disrupted. Nearby examples of (dwarf) irregular galaxies include the Magellanic Clouds.
Many dwarf galaxies may orbit a single larger galaxy; the Milky Way has at least a dozen such satellites, with an estimated 300–500 yet to be discovered. Dwarf galaxies may also be classified as elliptical, spiral, or irregular. Since small dwarf ellipticals bear little resemblance to large ellipticals, they are often called dwarf spheroidal galaxies instead.
A study of 27 Milky Way neighbors found that dwarf galaxies were all approximately 10 million solar masses, regardless of whether they have thousands or millions of stars. This has led to the suggestion that galaxies are largely formed by dark matter, and that the minimum size may indicate a form of warm dark matter incapable of gravitational coalescence on a smaller scale.
Collisions occur when two galaxies pass directly through each other and have sufficient relative momentum not to merge. The stars within these interacting galaxies will typically pass straight through without colliding. However, the gas and dust within the two forms will interact. This can trigger bursts of star formation as the interstellar medium becomes disrupted and compressed. A collision can severely distort the shape of one or both galaxies, forming bars, rings or tail-like structures.
At the extreme of interactions are galactic mergers. In this case the relative momentum of the two galaxies is insufficient to allow the galaxies to pass through each other. Instead, they gradually merge together to form a single, larger galaxy. Mergers can result in significant changes to morphology, as compared to the original galaxies. In the case where one of the galaxies is much more massive, however, the result is known as cannibalism. In this case the larger galaxy will remain relatively undisturbed by the merger, while the smaller galaxy is torn apart. The Milky Way galaxy is currently in the process of cannibalizing the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy and the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy.
Stars are created within galaxies from a reserve of cold gas that forms into giant molecular clouds. Some galaxies have been observed to form stars at an exceptional rate, known as a starburst. Should they continue to do so, however, they would consume their reserve of gas in a time frame lower than the lifespan of the galaxy. Hence starburst activity usually lasts for only about ten million years, a relatively brief period in the history of a galaxy. Starburst galaxies were more common during the early history of the universe, and, at present, still contribute an estimated 15% to the total star production rate.
Starburst galaxies are characterized by dusty concentrations of gas and the appearance of newly-formed stars, including massive stars that ionize the surrounding clouds to create H II regions. These massive stars also produce supernova explosions, resulting in expanding remnants that interact powerfully with the surrounding gas. These outbursts trigger a chain reaction of star building that spreads throughout the gaseous region. Only when the available gas is nearly consumed or dispersed does the starburst activity come to an end.
Starbursts are often associated with merging or interacting galaxies. The prototype example of such a starburst-forming interaction is M82, which experienced a close encounter with the larger M81. Irregular galaxies often exhibit spaced knots of starburst activity.
A portion of the galaxies we can observe are classified as active. That is, a significant portion of the total energy output from the galaxy is emitted by a source other than the stars, dust and interstellar medium.
The standard model for an active galactic nucleus is based upon an accretion disc that forms around a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the core region. The radiation from an active galactic nucleus results from the gravitational energy of matter as it falls toward the black hole from the disc. In about 10% of these objects, a diametrically opposed pair of energetic jets ejects particles from the core at velocities close to the speed of light. The mechanism for producing these jets is still not well-understood.
Active galaxies that emit high-energy radiation in the form of x-rays are classified as Seyfert galaxies or quasars, depending on the luminosity. Blazars are believed to be an active galaxy with a relativistic jet that is pointed in the direction of the Earth. A radio galaxy emits radio frequencies from relativistic jets. A unified model of these types of active galaxies explains their differences based on the viewing angle of the observer.
Possibly related to active galactic nuclei (as well as starburst regions) are low-ionization nuclear emission-line regions (LINERs). The emission from LINER-type galaxies is dominated by weakly-ionized elements. Approximately one-third of nearby galaxies are classified as containing LINER nuclei.
Evidence for the early appearance of galaxies was found in 2006, when it was discovered that the galaxy IOK-1 has an unusually high redshift of 6.96, corresponding to just 750 million years after the Big Bang and making it the most distant and primordial galaxy yet seen. While some scientists have claimed other objects (such as Abell 1835 IR1916) have higher redshifts (and therefore are seen in an earlier stage of the Universe's evolution), IOK-1's age and composition have been more reliably established. The existence of such early protogalaxies suggests that they must have grown in the so-called "Dark Ages".
The detailed process by which such early galaxy formation occurred is a major open question in astronomy. Theories could be divided into two categories: top-down and bottom-up. In top-down theories (such as the Eggen–Lynden-Bell–Sandage [ELS] model), protogalaxies form in a large-scale simultaneous collapse lasting about one hundred million years. In bottom-up theories (such as the Searle-Zinn [SZ] model), small structures such as globular clusters form first, and then a number of such bodies accrete to form a larger galaxy. Modern theories must be modified to account for the probable presence of large dark matter halos.
Once protogalaxies began to form and contract, the first halo stars (called Population III stars) appeared within them. These were composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, and may have been massive. If so, these huge stars would have quickly consumed their supply of fuel and became supernovae, releasing heavy elements into the interstellar medium. This first generation of stars re-ionized the surrounding neutral hydrogen, creating expanding bubbles of space through which light could readily travel.
Within a billion years of a galaxy's formation, key structures begin to appear. Globular clusters, the central supermassive black hole, and a galactic bulge of metal-poor Population II stars form. The creation of a supermassive black hole appears to play a key role in actively regulating the growth of galaxies by limiting the total amount of additional matter added. During this early epoch, galaxies undergo a major burst of star formation.
During the following two billion years, the accumulated matter settles into a galactic disc. A galaxy will continue to absorb infalling material from high velocity clouds and dwarf galaxies throughout its life. This matter is mostly hydrogen and helium. The cycle of stellar birth and death slowly increases the abundance of heavy elements, eventually allowing the formation of planets.
The evolution of galaxies can be significantly affected by interactions and collisions. Mergers of galaxies were common during the early epoch, and the majority of galaxies were peculiar in morphology. Given the distances between the stars, the great majority of stellar systems in colliding galaxies will be unaffected. However, gravitational stripping of the interstellar gas and dust that makes up the spiral arms produces a long train of stars known as tidal tails. Examples of these formations can be seen in NGC 4676 or the Antennae Galaxies.
As an example of such an interaction, the Milky Way galaxy and the nearby Andromeda Galaxy are moving toward each other at about 130 km/s, and—depending upon the lateral movements—the two may collide in about five to six billion years. Although the Milky Way has never collided with a galaxy as large as Andromeda before, evidence of past collisions of the Milky Way with smaller dwarf galaxies is increasing.
Such large-scale interactions are rare. As time passes, mergers of two systems of equal size become less common. Most bright galaxies have remained fundamentally unchanged for the last few billion years, and the net rate of star formation probably also peaked approximately ten billion years ago.
The current era of star formation is expected to continue for up to one hundred billion years, and then the "stellar age" will wind down after about ten trillion to one hundred trillion years (1013–1014 years), as the smallest, longest-lived stars in our astrosphere, tiny red dwarfs, begin to fade. At the end of the stellar age, galaxies will be composed of compact objects: brown dwarfs, white dwarfs that are cooling or cold ("black dwarfs"), neutron stars, and black holes. Eventually, as a result of gravitational relaxation, all stars will either fall into central supermassive black holes or be flung into intergalactic space as a result of collisions.
On the largest scale, the universe is continually expanding, resulting in an average increase in the separation between individual galaxies (see Hubble's law). Associations of galaxies can overcome this expansion on a local scale through their mutual gravitational attraction. These associations formed early in the universe, as clumps of dark matter pulled their respective galaxies together. Nearby groups later merged to form larger-scale clusters. This on-going merger process (as well as an influx of infalling gas) heats the inter-galactic gas within a cluster to very high temperatures, reaching 30–100 million K. About 70–80% of the mass in a cluster is in the form of dark matter, with 10–30% consisting of this heated gas and the remaining few percent of the matter in the form of galaxies.
Most galaxies in the universe are gravitationally bound to a number of other galaxies. These form a fractal-like hierarchy of clustered structures, with the smallest such associations being termed groups. A group of galaxies is the most common type of galactic cluster, and these formations contain a majority of the galaxies (as well as most of the baryonic mass) in the universe. To remain gravitationally bound to such a group, each member galaxy must have a sufficiently low velocity to prevent it from escaping (see Virial theorem). If there is insufficient kinetic energy, however, the group may evolve into a smaller number of galaxies through mergers.
Larger structures containing many thousands of galaxies packed into an area a few megaparsecs across are called clusters. Clusters of galaxies are often dominated by a single giant elliptical galaxy, known as the brightest cluster galaxy, which, over time, tidally destroys its satellite galaxies and adds their mass to its own.
Superclusters contain tens of thousands of galaxies, which are found in clusters, groups and sometimes individually. At the supercluster scale, galaxies are arranged into sheets and filaments surrounding vast empty voids. Above this scale, the universe appears to be isotropic and Homogeneity.
The Milky Way galaxy is a member of an association named the Local Group, a relatively small group of galaxies that has a diameter of approximately one megaparsec. The Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are the two brightest galaxies within the group; many of the other member galaxies are dwarf companions of these two galaxies. The Local Group itself is a part of a cloud-like structure within the Virgo Supercluster, a large, extended structure of groups and clusters of galaxies centered around the Virgo Cluster.
After galaxies external to the Milky Way were found to exist, initial observations were made mostly using visible light. The peak radiation of most stars lies here, so the observation of the stars that form galaxies has been a major component of optical astronomy. It is also a favorable portion of the spectrum for observing ionized H II regions, and for examining the distribution of dusty arms.
The dust present in the interstellar medium is opaque to visual light. It is more transparent to far-infrared, which can be used to observe the interior regions of giant molecular clouds and galactic cores in great detail. Infrared is also used to observe distant, red-shifted galaxies that were formed much earlier in the history of the universe. Water vapor and carbon dioxide absorb a number of useful portions of the infrared spectrum, so high-altitude or space-based telescopes are used for infrared astronomy.
The first non-visual study of galaxies, particularly active galaxies, was made using radio frequencies. The atmosphere is nearly transparent to radio between 5 MHz and 30 GHz. (The ionosphere blocks signals below this range.) Large radio interferometers have been used to map the active jets emitted from active nuclei. Radio telescopes can also be used to observe neutral hydrogen (via 21 centimetre radiation), including, potentially, the non-ionized matter in the early universe that later collapsed to form galaxies.
Ultraviolet and X-ray telescopes can observe highly energetic galactic phenomena. An ultraviolet flare was observed when a star in a distant galaxy was torn apart from the tidal forces of a black hole. The distribution of hot gas in galactic clusters can be mapped by X-rays. The existence of super-massive black holes at the cores of galaxies was confirmed through X-ray astronomy.