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Physics LibreTexts

26: Galaxies

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  • In the last chapter, we explored our own Galaxy. But is it the only one? If there are others, are they like the Milky Way? How far away are they? Can we see them? As we shall learn, some galaxies turn out to be so far away that it has taken billions of years for their light to reach us. These remote galaxies can tell us what the universe was like when it was young.

    In this chapter, we start our exploration of the vast realm of galaxies. Like tourists from a small town making their first visit to the great cities of the world, we will be awed by the beauty and variety of the galaxies. And yet, we will recognize that much of what we see is not so different from our experiences at home, and we will be impressed by how much we can learn by looking at structures built long ago.

    We begin our voyage with a guide to the properties of galaxies, much as a tourist begins with a guidebook to the main features of the cities on the itinerary. In later chapters, we will look more carefully at the past history of galaxies, how they have changed over time, and how they acquired their many different forms. First, we’ll begin our voyage through the galaxies with the question: is our Galaxy the only one?

    • 26.1: The Discovery of Galaxies
      Faint star clusters, clouds of glowing gas, and galaxies all appeared as faint patches of light (or nebulae) in the telescopes available at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was only when Hubble measured the distance to the Andromeda galaxy using cepheid variables with the giant 2.5-meter reflector on Mount Wilson in 1924 that the existence of other galaxies similar to the Milky Way in size and content was established.
    • 26.2: Types of Galaxies
      Most bright galaxies are either spirals or ellipticals. Spiral galaxies contain both old and young stars, as well as interstellar matter, and have typical masses in the range of 109 to 1012 MSun. Our own Galaxy is a large spiral. Ellipticals are spheroidal or slightly elongated systems that consist almost entirely of old stars, with very little interstellar matter. Elliptical galaxies range in size from giants, more massive than any spiral, down to dwarfs, with masses of only about 106 MSun.
    • 26.3: Properties of Galaxies
      The masses of spiral galaxies are determined from measurements of their rates of rotation. The masses of elliptical galaxies are estimated from analyses of the motions of the stars within them. Galaxies can be characterized by their mass-to-light ratios. The luminous parts of galaxies with active star formation typically have mass-to-light ratios in the range of 1 to 10; the luminous parts of elliptical galaxies typically have mass-to-light ratios of 10 to 20.
    • 26.4: The Extragalactic Distance Scale
      Astronomers determine the distances to galaxies using a variety of methods, including the period-luminosity relationship for cepheid variables; objects such as type Ia supernovae, which appear to be standard bulbs; and the Tully-Fisher relation, which connects the line broadening of 21-cm radiation to the luminosity of spiral galaxies. Each method has limitations in terms of its precision, the kinds of galaxies with which it can be used, and the range of distances over which it can be applied.
    • 26.5: The Expanding Universe
      The universe is expanding. Observations show that the spectral lines of distant galaxies are redshifted, and that their recession velocities are proportional to their distances from us, a relationship known as Hubble’s law. The rate of recession, called the Hubble constant, is approximately 22 kilometers per second per million light-years. We are not at the center of this expansion: an observer in any other galaxy would see the same pattern of expansion that we do. The expansion described by Hub
    • 26.E: Galaxies (Exercises)

    Thumbnail: Spiral Galaxy. NGC 6946 is a spiral galaxy also known as the “Fireworks galaxy.” It is at a distance of about 18 million light-years, in the direction of the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1798. This galaxy is about one-third the size of the Milky Way. Note on the left how the colors of the galaxy change from the yellowish light of old stars in the center to the blue color of hot, young stars and the reddish glow of hydrogen clouds in the spiral arms. As the image shows, this galaxy is rich in dust and gas, and new stars are still being born here. In the right-hand image, the x-rays coming from this galaxy are shown in purple, which has been added to other colors showing visible light. (Credit left: modification of work by NASA, ESA, STScI, R. Gendler, and the Subaru Telescope (NAOJ); credit right: modification of work by X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSSL/R.Soria et al, Optical: AURA/Gemini OBs)