Monday, January 16, 2012


Galaxy Group
This galaxy group, named Hickson Compact Group (HCG) 87, is about 400 million light-years from Earth. The galaxies are interacting gravitationally, influencing one another’s structure and evolution. The image was taken by the Gemini South telescope at Cerro Pachón, Chile.

Galaxy, a massive ensemble of hundreds of millions of stars, all gravitationally interacting, and orbiting about a common center. Astronomers estimate that there are about 125 billion galaxies in the universe. All the stars visible to the unaided eye from Earth belong to Earth’s galaxy, the Milky Way. The Sun, with its associated planets, is just one star in this galaxy. Besides stars and planets, galaxies contain clusters of stars; atomic hydrogen gas; molecular hydrogen; complex molecules composed of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and silicon, among others; and cosmic rays (see Interstellar Matter).
Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy, is the farthest object from Earth visible to the naked eye. Its whirlpool of stars can be seen from the Northern Hemisphere in the constellation Andromeda. The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are part of a group of galaxies called the Local Group, which in turn is part of larger group called the Virgo Cluster.

A Persian astronomer, al-Sufi, is credited with first describing the spiral galaxy seen in the constellation Andromeda. By the middle of the 18th century, only three galaxies had been identified. In 1780, the French astronomer Charles Messier published a list that included 32 galaxies. These galaxies are now identified by their Messier (M) numbers; the Andromeda galaxy, for example, is known among astronomers as M31.
Thousands of galaxies were identified and cataloged by the British astronomers Sir William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, and Sir John Herschel, during the early part of the 19th century. Since 1900 galaxies have been discovered in large numbers by photographic searches. Galaxies at enormous distances from Earth appear so tiny on a photograph that they can hardly be distinguished from stars. The largest known galaxy has about 13 times as many stars as the Milky Way.
In 1912 the American astronomer Vesto M. Slipher, working at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, discovered that the lines in the spectrum of all galaxies were shifted toward the red spectral region (see Redshift; Spectroscopy). This was interpreted by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble as evidence that all galaxies are moving away from one another and led to the conclusion that the universe is expanding. It is not known if the universe will continue to expand or if it contains sufficient matter to slow down the galaxies gravitationally so they will eventually begin contracting to the point from which they arose. See Cosmology.
Milky Way
Spiral galaxies, such as our own Milky Way, have a relatively flat disk shape with spiral arms. This false-color image looks toward the center of the Milky Way, located 30,000 light-years away. Bright star clusters are visible in the image along with darker areas of dust and gas.

When viewed or photographed with a large telescope, only the nearest galaxies exhibit individual stars. For most galaxies, only the combined light of all the stars is detected. Galaxies exhibit a variety of forms. Some have an overall globular shape, with a bright nucleus. Such galaxies, called ellipticals, contain a population of old stars, usually with little apparent gas or dust, and few newly formed stars. Elliptical galaxies come in a vast range of sizes, from giant to dwarf.
In contrast, spiral galaxies are flattened disk systems containing not only some old stars but also large populations of young stars, much gas and dust, and molecular clouds that are the birthplace of stars (see Star). Often the regions containing bright young stars and gas clouds are arranged in long spiral arms that can be observed to wind around the galaxy. Generally a halo of faint older stars surrounds the disk; a smaller nuclear bulge often exists, emitting two jets of energetic matter in opposite directions.
Hoag’s Object
A ring of young, massive, blue stars surrounds a nucleus of older, yellow stars in the galaxy known as Hoag’s Object. Astronomers speculate that this unusual separation is the result of a collision with another galaxy. Hoag’s Object lies 600 million light-years away in the constellation Serpens.

Other disklike galaxies, with no overall spiral form, are classified as irregulars. These galaxies also have large amounts of gas, dust, and young stars, but no arrangement of a spiral form. They are usually located near larger galaxies, and their appearance is probably the result of a tidal encounter with the more massive galaxy. Some extremely peculiar galaxies are located in close groups of two or three, and their tidal interactions have caused distortions of spiral arms, producing warped disks and long streamer tails. Ring galaxies, for example, form when a small galaxy collides with the center of a spiral galaxy. An intense ring of stars forms at the outer edges of the new, combined galaxy. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has revealed many more ring galaxies than astronomers expected, suggesting that galactic collisions may be common.
Quasars are objects that appear stellar or almost stellar, but their enormous redshifts identify them as objects at very large distances (see Quasar; Radio Astronomy). They are probably closely related to radio galaxies and to BL Lacertae objects. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) completed a survey of nearby galaxies in 1996 that revealed that all large galaxies may be homes to quasars early in the galaxy’s life. The HST survey showed that most of the galaxies contain massive black holes, which may be the next stage in galactic evolution.
In viewing a galaxy with a telescope, inferring its distance is impossible, for it may be a gigantic galaxy at a large distance or a smaller one closer to Earth. Astronomers estimate distances by comparing the brightness or sizes of objects in the unknown galaxy with those in Earth’s galaxy. The brightest stars, supernovas, star clusters, and gas clouds have been used for this purpose. Cepheid variables, stars the brightness of which varies periodically, are especially valuable because the period of pulsation is related to the intrinsic brightness of the star. By observing periodicity, the true brightness can be computed and compared with the apparent brightness; distance can then be inferred. Astronomers have learned that the speed of the stars as they orbit the center of their galaxy depends on the intrinsic brightness and mass of that galaxy. Rapidly rotating galaxies are extremely luminous; slowly rotating ones are intrinsically faint. If the orbital velocities of stars in a galaxy can be determined, then the distance of that galaxy can be inferred.
Distant Galaxies
In January 1996 astronomers were able to prove that there are five times more galaxies in the universe than previously thought. Helping them in this conclusion was the Deep Field image taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. Although the image covers only a tiny speck of the sky, it is packed with galaxies.

Galaxies are generally not isolated in space but are often members of small or moderate-sized groups or clusters, which in turn form large superclusters of galaxies. Earth’s galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, is one of at least 30 galaxies in what astronomers call the Local Group. The Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies are the two largest members of the Local Group, each with hundreds of billions of stars. The Large, Small, and Mini Magellanic Clouds are nearby satellite galaxies, but each is small and faint, with about 100 million stars. See also Magellanic Clouds.
Colliding Clusters of Galaxies
Galaxy cluster 1E 0657-556, called the "Bullet Cluster," is actually two giant groups of galaxies that collided head-on. This composite picture was created from images taken by different space telescopes in X-ray and visible light. Astronomers think the collision made the dark matter around the galaxies visible, indicated by the blue regions, which bend the light from more distant galaxies in the background. The pink regions are hot gas stripped away in the collision. Dark matter is a still unidentified substance that makes up about 23 percent of the universe. It is thought to surround most galaxies, affecting their shapes by its gravity.

The Local Group is a member of the Local Supercluster. The nearest cluster is the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies. The Virgo cluster is at or near the center of the Local Supercluster, and its gravitational pull on the Local Group is making this group recede more slowly than the expansion of the universe would normally cause it to recede.
Overall, the distribution of clusters and superclusters in the universe is not uniform. Instead, superclusters of tens of thousands of galaxies are arranged in long, stringy, lacelike filaments, arranged around large voids. The Great Wall, a galactic filament discovered in 1989, stretches across more than half a billion light-years of space. Cosmologists theorize that dark matter, material that neither radiates nor reflects light, has sufficient mass to generate the gravitational fields responsible for the heterogeneous structure of the universe.
The most distant galaxies known, near the edge of the observable universe, are blue because of the hot, young stars they contain. Observing these galaxies from Earth is difficult because the light and radiation they emit is mostly in the blue, violet, and ultraviolet range, a range that is mostly blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. Astronomers have obtained images of young galaxies using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and the Hubble Space Telescope, which resides in an orbit high above Earth’s atmosphere and thus avoids atmospheric interference. Photos from the HST show galaxies that are as far as 13 billion light-years away from Earth, which means they formed soon after the universe formed about 13.7 billion years ago. The galaxies appear to be spherical in shape, and may be early precursors of elliptical and spiral galaxies.
Stars and gas clouds orbit about the center of their galaxy. Astronomers believe that most galaxies spin around a black hole, a dense object with such a large gravitational pull that nothing nearby can escape, not even light. Using the HST in 1994, astronomers found the first evidence for a black hole in the center of a galaxy. In 1998 researchers found strong evidence that the Milky Way galaxy’s center, which is 28,000 light-years away from Earth, contains a black hole more than two million times the mass of the Sun. In 1999 a group of astronomers showed that the two bright spots at the center of the Andromeda galaxy were caused by stars speeding around a black hole, the real center of the galaxy.
Orbital periods are more than 100 million years. These motions are studied by measuring the positions of lines in the galaxy spectra. In spiral galaxies, the stars move in circular orbits, with velocities that increase with increasing distances from the center. At the edges of spiral disks, velocities of 300 km/sec (about 185 mi/sec) have been measured at distances as great as 150,000 light-years.
This increase in velocity with increase in distance is unlike planetary velocities in the solar system, for example, where the velocities of planets decrease with increasing distance from the sun. This difference tells astronomers that the mass of a galaxy is not as centrally concentrated as is the mass in the solar system. A significant portion of galaxy mass is located at large distances from the center of the galaxy, but this mass has so little luminosity that it has only been detected by its gravitational attraction. Studies of velocities of stars in external galaxies have led to the belief that much of the mass in the universe is not visible as stars. The exact nature of this dark matter is unknown at present. See also Cosmology.
Knowledge of the appearance of a galaxy is based on optical observations. Knowledge of the composition and motions of the individual stars comes from spectral studies in the optical region also. Because the hydrogen gas in the spiral arms of a galaxy radiates in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, many details of galactic structure are learned from studies in the radio region. The warm dust in the nucleus and spiral arms of a galaxy radiates in the infrared portion of the spectrum. Some galaxies radiate more energy in the optical region.
Recent X-ray observations have confirmed that galactic halos contain hot gas, gas with temperatures of millions of degrees. X-ray emission is also observed from objects as varied as globular clusters, supernova remnants, and hot gas in clusters of galaxies. Observations in the ultraviolet region also reveal the properties of the gas in the halo, as well as details of the evolution of young stars in galaxies. See X-Ray Galaxy.
As the 21st century began, astronomers believed they were much closer to understanding the origins of galaxies. Observations made by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, which was launched in 1989, confirmed predictions made by the big bang theory of the universe’s origin. COBE also detected small irregularities, or ripples, in the background radiation that uniformly pervades the universe. These ripples were thought to be clumps of matter that formed soon after the big bang. The clumps became the seeds from which galaxies and clusters of galaxies developed. The ripples were studied in more detail in limited regions of the sky by a variety of ground-based and balloon-based experiments. A more recent spacecraft, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), made even more accurate observations of these ripples across the entire sky. In 2003 WMAP’s results confirmed the existence of these galactic seeds, providing a full-sky map of the universe’s emerging galaxies.

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