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Geosciences LibreTexts

3.7: Types of Galaxies

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  • Galaxies are the biggest groups of stars and can contain anywhere from a few million stars to many billions of stars (you can learn more here, from NASA). Every star that is visible in the night sky is part of the Milky Way Galaxy. To the naked eye the closest major galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, looks like only a dim, fuzzy spot but that fuzzy spot contains one trillion stars.

    Spiral Galaxies

    A standard spiral galaxy. There appear to be two arms of the spiralSpiral galaxies spin, so they appear as a rotating disk of stars and dust, with a bulge in the middle, like the Sombrero Galaxy. Several arms spiral outward in the Pinwheel Galaxy and are appropriately called spiral arms. Spiral galaxies have lots of gas and dust and lots of young stars.Other galaxies are egg-shaped and called elliptical galaxy. The smallest elliptical galaxies are as small as some globular clusters. Giant elliptical galaxies, on the other hand, can contain over a trillion stars. Elliptical galaxies are reddish to yellowish in color because they contain mostly old stars.Most elliptical galaxies contain very little gas and dust because they had already formed. However, some elliptical galaxies contain lots of dust. Why might some elliptical galaxies contain dust?

    The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation Andromeda.
    The Andromeda Galaxy
    The famous Sombrero galaxy (M104) is a bright nearby spiral galaxy. The prominent dust lane and halo of stars and globular clusters give this galaxy its name. Something very energetic is going on in the Sombrero's center, as much X-ray light has been detected from it. This X-ray emission coupled with unusually high central stellar velocities cause many astronomers to speculate that a black hole lies at the Sombrero's center - a black hole a billion times the mass of our Sun.
    The Sombrero Galaxy
    a face-on spiral galaxy about 27 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major
    The Pinwheel Galaxy

    Irregular and Dwarf Galaxies

    An irregularly shaped galaxy. The galaxy has no definite shape or pattern of brightness.Galaxies that are not clearly elliptical galaxies or spiral galaxies are irregular galaxies. Most irregular galaxies were once spiral or elliptical galaxies that were then deformed either by gravitational attraction to a larger galaxy or by a collision with another galaxy. Dwarf galaxies are small galaxies containing only a few million to a few billion stars. Dwarf galaxies are the most common type in the universe. However, because they are relatively small and dim, we don’t see as many dwarf galaxies from Earth. Most dwarf galaxies are irregular in shape. However, there are also dwarf elliptical galaxies and dwarf spiral galaxies. Look back at the picture of the spiral galaxy, Andromeda. Next to our closest galaxy neighbor are two dwarf elliptical galaxies that are companions to the Andromeda Galaxy. One is a bright sphere to the left of center, and the other is a long ellipse below and to the right of center. Dwarf galaxies are often found near larger galaxies. They sometimes collide with and merge into their larger neighbors.

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    On January 5, NASA released an image of the Andromeda galaxy, our closest galactic neighbor, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The full image is made up of 411 Hubble images, takes you through a 100 million stars and travels over more than 40,000 light years. Well, a section of it anyway.

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