How and when did galaxies like our Milky Way form? Which formed first: stars or galaxies? Can we see direct evidence of the changes galaxies undergo over their lifetimes? If so, what determines whether a galaxy will “grow up” to be spiral or elliptical? And what is the role of “nature versus nurture”? That is to say, how much of a galaxy’s development is determined by what it looks like when it is born and how much is influenced by its environment?
Astronomers today have the tools needed to explore the universe almost back to the time it began. The huge new telescopes and sensitive detectors built in the last decades make it possible to obtain both images and spectra of galaxies so distant that their light has traveled to reach us for more than 13 billion years—more than 90% of the way back to the Big Bang: we can use the finite speed of light and the vast size of the universe as a cosmic time machine to peer back and observe how galaxies formed and evolved over time. Studying galaxies so far away in any detail is always a major challenge, largely because their distance makes them appear very faint. However, today’s large telescopes on the ground and in space are finally making such a task possible.
- 28.1: Observations of Distant Galaxies
- When we look at distant galaxies, we are looking back in time. We have now seen galaxies as they were when the universe was about 500 million years old—only about five percent as old as it is now. The universe now is 13.8 billion years old. The color of a galaxy is an indicator of the age of the stars that populate it. Blue galaxies must contain a lot of hot, massive, young stars. Galaxies that contain only old stars tend to be yellowish red.
- 28.2: Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
- When galaxies of comparable size collide and coalesce we call it a merger, but when a small galaxy is swallowed by a much larger one, we use the term galactic cannibalism. Collisions play an important role in the evolution of galaxies. If the collision involves at least one galaxy rich in interstellar matter, the resulting compression of the gas will result in a burst of star formation, leading to a starburst galaxy. Mergers were much more common when the universe was young.
- 28.3: The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
- Counts of galaxies in various directions establish that the universe on the large scale is homogeneous and isotropic (the same everywhere and the same in all directions, apart from evolutionary changes with time). The sameness of the universe everywhere is referred to as the cosmological principle. Galaxies are grouped together in clusters. The Milky Way Galaxy is a member of the Local Group, which contains at least 54 member galaxies.
- 28.4: The Challenge of Dark Matter
- Stars move much faster in their orbits around the centers of galaxies, and galaxies around centers of galaxy clusters, than they should according to the gravity of all the luminous matter (stars, gas, and dust) astronomers can detect. This discrepancy implies that galaxies and galaxy clusters are dominated by dark matter rather than normal luminous matter. Gravitational lensing and X-ray radiation from massive galaxy clusters confirm the presence of dark matter.
- 28.5: The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
- Initially, luminous and dark matter in the universe was distributed almost—but not quite—uniformly. The challenge for galaxy formation theories is to show how this “not quite” smooth distribution of matter developed the structures—galaxies and galaxy clusters—that we see today. It is likely that the filamentary distribution of galaxies and voids was built in near the beginning, before stars and galaxies began to form.
Thumbnail: Collisions and mergers of galaxies strongly influence their evolution. This image shows the inner regions of these two galaxies, as taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The cores of the twin galaxies are the orange blobs to the lower left and upper right of the center of the image. Note the dark lanes of dust crossing in front of the bright regions. The bright pink and blue star clusters are the result of a burst of star formation stimulated by the collision. (credit right: modification of work by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration).
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).