Skip to main content
Physics LibreTexts

13: Galaxies

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Today, we know that our Sun is just one of the many billions of stars that make up the huge cosmic island we call the Milky Way Galaxy. How can we “weigh” such an enormous system of stars and measure its total mass?

    One of the most striking features you can see in a truly dark sky—one without light pollution—is the band of faint white light called the Milky Way, which stretches from one horizon to the other. The name comes from an ancient Greek legend that compared its faint white splash of light to a stream of spilled milk. But folktales differ from culture to culture: one East African tribe thought of the hazy band as the smoke of ancient campfires, several Native American stories tell of a path across the sky traveled by sacred animals, and in Siberia, the diffuse arc was known as the seam of the tent of the sky.

    In 1610, Galileo made the first telescopic survey of the Milky Way and discovered that it is composed of a multitude of individual stars. Today, we know that the Milky Way comprises our view inward of the huge cosmic pinwheel that we call the Milky Way Galaxy and that is our home. Moreover, our Galaxy is now recognized as just one galaxy among many billions of other galaxies in the cosmos.

    • 13.1: The Architecture of the Galaxy
      The Milky Way Galaxy consists of a thin disk containing dust, gas, and young and old stars; a spherical halo containing populations of very old stars, and globular star clusters; a thick, more diffuse disk with stars that have properties intermediate between those in the thin disk and the halo; a peanut-shaped nuclear bulge of mostly old stars around the center; and a supermassive black hole at the very center. The Sun is located roughly halfway out of the Milky Way.
    • 13.2: Spiral Structure
      The gaseous distribution in the Galaxy’s disk has two main spiral arms that emerge from the ends of the central bar, along with several fainter arms and short spurs; the Sun is located in one of those spurs. Measurements show that the Galaxy does not rotate as a solid body, but instead its stars and gas follow differential rotation, such that the material closer to the galactic center completes its orbit more quickly.
    • 13.3: The Mass of the Galaxy
      The Sun revolves completely around the galactic center in about 225 million years (a galactic year). The mass of the Galaxy can be determined by measuring the orbital velocities of stars and interstellar matter. The total mass of the Galaxy is about 2 × 10^12 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\). As much as 95% of this mass consists of dark matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation and can be detected only because of the gravitational force it exerts on visible stars and interstellar matter.
    • 13.4: The Center of the Galaxy
      A supermassive black hole is located at the center of the Galaxy. Measurements of the velocities of stars located within a few light-days of the center show that the mass inside their orbits around the center is about 4.6 million \(M_{\text{Sun}}\). Radio observations show that this mass is concentrated in a volume with a diameter similar to that of Mercury’s orbit. The density of this matter concentration exceeds that of the densest known star clusters by a factor of nearly a million.
    • 13.5: Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
      We can roughly divide the stars in the Galaxy into two categories. Old stars with few heavy elements are referred to as population II stars and are found in the halo and in globular clusters. Population I stars contain more heavy elements than globular cluster and halo stars, are typically younger and found in the disk, and are especially concentrated in the spiral arms. The Sun is a member of population I.
    • 13.6: The Formation of the Galaxy
      The Galaxy began forming a little more than 13 billion years ago. Models suggest that the stars in the halo and globular clusters formed first, while the Galaxy was spherical. The gas, somewhat enriched in heavy elements by the first generation of stars, then collapsed from a spherical distribution to a rotating disk-shaped distribution. Stars are still forming today from the gas and dust that remain in the disk. Star formation occurs most rapidly in the spiral arms.
    • 13.7: 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.
    • 13.8: 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 10^9 to 10^12 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\). 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 10^6 \(M_{\text{Sun}}\).
    • 13.9: 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.
    • 13.10: 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.
    • 13.11: 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.
    • 13.12: Quasars
      The first quasars discovered looked like stars but had strong radio emission. Their visible-light spectra at first seemed confusing, but then astronomers realized that they had much larger redshifts than stars. The quasar spectra obtained so far show redshifts ranging from 15% to more than 96% the speed of light. Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope show that quasars lie at the centers of galaxies and that both spirals and ellipticals can harbor quasars.
    • 13.13: Supermassive Black Holes- What Quasars really are
      Both active galactic nuclei and quasars derive their energy from material falling toward, and forming a hot accretion disk around, a massive black hole. This model can account for the large amount of energy emitted and for the fact that the energy is produced in a relatively small volume of space. It can also explain why jets coming from these objects are seen in two directions: those directions are perpendicular to the accretion disk.
    • 13.14: Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
      Quasars and galaxies affect each other: the galaxy supplies fuel to the black hole, and the quasar heats and disrupts the gas clouds in the galaxy. The balance between these two processes probably helps explain why the black hole seems always to be about 1/200 the mass of the spherical bulge of stars that surrounds the black hole. Quasars were much more common billions of years ago than they are now, and astronomers speculate that they mark an early stage in the formation of galaxies.
    • 13.15: 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.
    • 13.16: 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.
    • 13.17: 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.
    • 13.18: 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.
    • 13.19: 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.
    • 13.20: The Milky Way Galaxy (Exercises)
    • 13.21: Galaxies (Exercises)
    • 13.22: Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes (Exercises)
    • 13.23: The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies (Exercises)

    Thumbnail: The Milky Way rises over Square Tower, an ancestral pueblo building at Hovenweep National Monument in Utah. Many stars and dark clouds of dust combine to make a spectacular celestial sight of our home Galaxy. The location has been designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 13: Galaxies is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.