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Monday, January 09, 2012

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NGC 4414, a typical spiral galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices, is about 55,000 light-years in diameter and approximately 60 million light-years away from Earth.

A galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system that consists of stars and stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and an important but poorly understood component tentatively dubbed dark matter. The word galaxy is derived from the Greek galaxias (γαλαξίας), literally "milky", a reference to the Milky Way galaxy. Examples of galaxies range from dwarfs with as few as ten million (107) stars to giants with a hundred trillion (1014) stars, each orbiting their galaxy's own center of mass.

The Antennae Galaxies are undergoing a collision that will result in their eventual merger.

Galaxies contain varying amounts of star systems, star clusters and types of interstellar clouds. In between these objects is a sparse interstellar medium of gas, dust, and cosmic rays. Dark matter appears to account for around 90% of the mass of most galaxies. Observational data suggests that supermassive black holes may exist at the center of many, if not all, galaxies. They are thought to be the primary driver of active galactic nuclei found at the core of some galaxies. The Milky Way galaxy appears to harbor at least one such object.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (on left), an example of an unbarred spiral galaxy.

Galaxies have been historically categorized according to their apparent shape; usually referred to as their visual morphology. A common form is the elliptical galaxy, which has an ellipse-shaped light profile. Spiral galaxies are disk-shaped with dusty, curving arms. Those with irregular or unusual shapes are known as irregular galaxies and typically originate from disruption by the gravitational pull of neighboring galaxies. Such interactions between nearby galaxies, which may ultimately result in a merging, sometimes induce significantly increased incidents of star formation leading to starburst galaxies. Smaller galaxies lacking a coherent structure are referred to as irregular galaxies.

Hoag's Object, an example of a ring galaxy

There are probably more than 170 billion (1.7 × 1011) galaxies in the observable universe. Most are 1,000 to 100,000 parsecs in diameter and usually separated by distances on the order of millions of parsecs (or megaparsecs). Intergalactic space (the space between galaxies) is filled with a tenuous gas of an average density less than one atom per cubic meter. The majority of galaxies are organized into a hierarchy of associations known as groups and clusters, which, in turn usually form larger superclusters. At the largest scale, these associations are generally arranged into sheets and filaments, which are surrounded by immense voids.

 NGC 1300, an example of a barred spiral galaxy.

Spiral galaxies consist of a rotating disk of stars and interstellar medium, along with a central bulge of generally older stars. Extending outward from the bulge are relatively bright arms. In the Hubble classification scheme, spiral galaxies are listed as type S, followed by a letter (a, b, or c) that indicates the degree of tightness of the spiral arms and the size of the central bulge. An Sa galaxy has tightly wound, poorly defined arms and possesses a relatively large core region. At the other extreme, an Sc galaxy has open, well-defined arms and a small core region. A galaxy with poorly defined arms is sometimes referred to as a flocculent spiral galaxy; in contrast to the grand design spiral galaxy that has prominent and well-defined spiral arms.

In spiral galaxies, the spiral arms do have the shape of approximate logarithmic spirals, a pattern that can be theoretically shown to result from a disturbance in a uniformly rotating mass of stars. Like the stars, the spiral arms rotate around the center, but they do so with constant angular velocity. The spiral arms are thought to be areas of high-density matter, or "density waves". As stars move through an arm, the space velocity of each stellar system is modified by the gravitational force of the higher density. (The velocity returns to normal after the stars depart on the other side of the arm.) This effect is akin to a "wave" of slowdowns moving along a highway full of moving cars. The arms are visible because the high density facilitates star formation, and therefore they harbor many bright and young stars.

Galactic Center of the Milky Way 

The word galaxy derives from the Greek term for our own galaxy, galaxias (γαλαξίας), or kyklos galaktikos, meaning "milky circle" for its appearance in the sky. In Greek mythology, Zeus places his son born by a mortal woman, the infant Heracles, on Hera's breast while she is asleep so that the baby will drink her divine milk and will thus become immortal. Hera wakes up while breastfeeding and then realizes she is nursing an unknown baby: she pushes the baby away and a jet of her milk sprays the night sky, producing the faint band of light known as the Milky Way.

In the astronomical literature, the capitalized word 'Galaxy' is used to refer to our galaxy, the Milky Way, to distinguish it from the billions of other galaxies. The term Milky Way first appeared in the English language in a story by Chaucer.

"See yonder, lo, the Galaxyë
 Which men clepeth the Milky Wey,
 For hit is whyt."
—Geoffrey Chaucer. The House of Fame, c. 1380.

NGC 5866, an example of a lenticular galaxy

A lenticular galaxy is a type of galaxy which is intermediate between an elliptical galaxy and a spiral galaxy in galaxy morphological classification schemes. Lenticular galaxies are disk galaxies (like spiral galaxies) which have used up or lost most of their interstellar matter and therefore have very little ongoing star formation. They may, however, retain significant dust in their disks. As a result, they consist mainly of aging stars (like elliptical galaxies). Because of their ill-defined spiral arms, if they are inclined face-on it is often difficult to distinguish between them and elliptical galaxies. Despite the morphological differences, lenticular and elliptical galaxies share common properties like spectral features, scaling relations and both can be considered as early type galaxies which are passively evolving, at least in the local universe.

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