You are on page 1of 9

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Sci
Science
Background
GalaxY Q&as
Teachers
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As

1. What is a galaxy?
Agalaxyisanenormouscollectionofafewmilliontoseveraltrillionstars,gas,
anddustheldtogetherbygravity.Galaxiescanbeseveralthousandtohundredsof
thousandsoflight-yearsacross.
2. What is the name of our galaxy?
ThenameofourgalaxyistheMilkyWay.OurSunandallofthestarsthatyou
seeatnightbelongtotheMilkyWay.Whenyougooutsideinthecountryona
darknightandlookup,youwillseeamilky,misty-lookingbandstretchingacross
thesky.Whenyoulookatthisband,youarelookingintothedensestpartsofthe
MilkyWaythediskandthebulge.TheMilkyWayisaspiralgalaxy.(SeeQ7
formoreonspiralgalaxies.)
3. Where is Earth in the Milky Way galaxy?
OursolarsystemisinoneofthespiralarmsoftheMilkyWay,calledtheOrion
Arm,andisabouttwo-thirdsofthewayfromthecenterofthegalaxytotheedge
ofthegalaxysstarlight.EarthisthethirdplanetfromtheSuninoursolarsystem
ofeightplanets.
4. What is the closest galaxy that is similar to our own galaxy, and how far
away is it?
TheclosestspiralgalaxyisAndromeda,agalaxymuchlikeourownMilkyWay.
Itis.millionlight-yearsawayfromus.Andromedaisapproachingourgalaxy
atarateof300,000milesperhour.Fivebillionyearsfromnowitmayevencollide
withourMilkyWaygalaxy.
5. Why do we study galaxies?
Bystudyingothergalaxies,astronomerslearnmoreabouttheMilkyWay,the
galaxythatcontainsoursolarsystem.AnswerstosuchquestionsasDoall
{ conr|nueo on page Jj
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As
3
galaxieshavethesameshape?,Areallgalaxiesthesamesize?,Dotheyall
havethesamenumberofstars?,andHowandwhendidgalaxiesform?help
astronomerslearnaboutthehistoryoftheuniverse.Galaxiesarevisibleatvast
distances,andrevealthehistoryofthevisibleuniversewiththeircollectionsofbil-
lionsofstars,gas,anddust.

6. What are the parts of a galaxy?


Agalaxycontainsstars,gas,anddust.InaspiralgalaxyliketheMilkyWay,the
stars,gas,anddustareorganizedintoabulge,ahalo,andadiskcontainingspiral
arms.Ellipticalgalaxieshaveabulgeshapeandahalo,butdonothaveadisk.
BulgeAroundstructuremadeupprimarilyofoldstars,gas,anddust.The
bulgeoftheMilkyWayisroughly10,000light-yearsacross.Theouterparts
ofthebulgearedifficulttodistinguishfromthehalo.
DiskAflattenedregionthatsurroundsthebulgeinaspiralgalaxy.Thedisk
isshapedlikeapancake.ThediskoftheMilkyWayis100,000light-years
acrossand,000light-yearsthick.Itcontainsmostlyyoungstars,gas,and
dust,whichareconcentratedinthespiralarms.Someoldstarsarealsopresent.
SpiralarmsCurvedmaterialofgas,dust,andyoungbluestarsthatbeginsat
thebulgeofaspiralgalaxyandcurvesoutward,givingagalaxyapinwheel
appearance.Spiralarmsarefoundonlyinspiralgalaxies.
HaloAroughlysphericalcollectionofoldstars,clustersofoldstars(called
globularclusters),andalittlebitofgasanddustthatextendsfartherthanall
othercomponentsofagalaxy.Haloscontaindarkmatter,whichismaterialthat
wecannotseebutwhosegravitationalforcecanbemeasured.Halosmaybe
morethan130,000light-yearsacross.
Stars,gas,anddustStarscomeinavarietyoftypes.Bluestarsarevery
hotandhaveshorterlifetimesthancooler,redstars.Regionsofgalaxieswhere
starsarecurrentlyformingarethereforebluerthanregionswheretherehas
{ conr|nueo on page 4j
{ conr|nueo lrom page 2j
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As

beennorecentstarformation.Spiralgalaxieshavelotsofgasanddust,while
ellipticalgalaxieshaveverylittlegasanddust.
7. How are galaxies classified? What do they look like?
Galaxiescanbeclassifiedaccordingtotheirshapes:spiral,elliptical,orirregular.
EdwinHubble,forwhomtheHubbleSpaceTelescopeisnamed,devisedanother
famousclassificationschemeforgalaxies.Hubblessystemincludedellipticaland
spiralgalaxiesbutexcludedirregulars.Today,astronomersusethreemaingalaxy
classes:spirals,ellipticals,andirregulars:
Aspiralgalaxyconsistsofaflatteneddiskcontainingspiral(pinwheel-shaped)
arms,ahalo,andabulgeatitscenter.Spiralgalaxieshaveavarietyofshapes.
Theyareclassifiedaccordingtothesizeofthebulgeandthetightnessand
appearanceofthearms.Thespiralarms,whichwraparoundthebulge,contain
manyyoungbluestarsandlotsofgasanddust.Mostofthestarsinthebulge
areolderandredder.YellowstarslikeourSunarefoundthroughoutthediskof
aspiralgalaxy.Thesegalaxiesrotatesomewhatlikeahurricaneorawhirlpool.
Anellipticalgalaxydoesnothaveadiskorspiralarms.Itischaracterized
byasmooth,ball-shapedappearance.Ellipticalscontainoldstarsandpossess
littlegasordust.Theyareclassifiedbytheshapeoftheball,whichcanrange
fromroundtooval(baseball-shapedtofootball-shaped).Thesmallestelliptical
galaxies(calleddwarfellipticals)areprobablythemostcommontypeofgalaxy
inthenearbyuniverse.Incontrasttospirals,thestarsinellipticalsdonot
revolvearoundthecenterinanorganizedway.Thestarsmoveinrandomly
orientedorbitswithinthegalaxy,likeaswarmofbees.
Anirregulargalaxyisneitheraspiralnoranelliptical.Irregulargalaxiestend
tobesmallerobjectswithoutadefiniteshape,andtheytypicallyhaveveryhot
newbornstarsmixedinwithlotsofgasanddust.Thesegalaxiesoftenhave
activeregionsofstarformation.Sometimestheirirregularshapeistheresult
ofinteractionsorcollisionswithothergalaxies.Observationssuchasthe
{ conr|nueo on page 5j
{ conr|nueo lrom page Jj
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As

HubbleDeepFieldsshowthatirregulargalaxiesweremorecommoninthe
distant(early)universe.
8. How do astronomers classify galaxies today?
Hubblessystemincludedellipticalandspiralgalaxiesbutexcludedirregulars.
Today,astronomersusethreemaingalaxyclasses:ellipticals,spirals,andirregulars.
Ellipticalgalaxiesrangefromroundshapes(E0)toovalshapes(E7).Spiralgalaxies
haveapinwheelshapeandareclassifiedaccordingtotheirbulge,aswellashow
tightlytheirarmsarewrappedaroundthebulge.TheyrangefromSa,whichhas
alargebulgeandtight,smootharms,toSc,whichhasasmallbulgeandloose,
lumpyarms.BarredspiralgalaxiesclassifiedasSBarepinwheel-shapedandhave
adistinctbarofstars,dust,andgasacrosstheirbulge.TheyrangefromanSBa,
whichhasabaracrossitslargebulgeandtight,smootharms,toanSBc,which
hasabaracrossitssmallbulgeandloose,lumpyarms.Irregulargalaxieshaveno
definiteshapebutstillcontainnewstars,gas,anddust.Thechartbelowsummarizes
thepropertiesofthemainclassesofgalaxies.
Main Classes of Galaxies
Spiral galaxies Elliptical galaxies Irregular galaxies
Huge;containstars,
gas,anddust
Huge;containstars,
gas,anddust
Huge;containstars,
gas,anddust
Heldtogetherbygravity Heldtogetherbygravity Heldtogetherbygravity
Pinwheelshape Round-to-ovalshape Noregularshape
Bulgeandthindisk;
haloispresent
Bulgebutnodisk;halo
ispresent
Mayshowsignsofa
diskand/orabulge;
haloispresent
Richingasanddust Smallamountofcool
gasanddust
Usuallyrichin
gasanddust
Youngandoldstarsare
present
Mainlyoldstarsare
present
Youngandoldstarsare
present
{ conr|nueo lrom page 4j
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As

9. What is the most common type of galaxy in the nearby universe?


Whenonecountsbothlargeandsmallgalaxies,dwarfellipticals(smallellipticals)
areprobablythemostcommontypeofgalaxyinthenearbyuniverse.Sincethese
galaxiesaresmallandfaint,theirexactnumberisnotwellknown.Themajorityof
large,brightgalaxiesinthenearbyuniversearespirals.
10. Galaxies are often identified by a group of letters and numbers.
What do they stand for?
Scientistsclassifygalaxiesindifferentcatalogs.ThemostcommoncatalogisNGC,
whichstandsforThe New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars.
OthercatalogsincludeM(Messier),ESO(EuropeanSouthernObservatory),IR
(InfraredAstronomicalSatellite),Mrk(Markarian),andUGC(UppsalaGeneral
Catalog).Sometimesagalaxyappearsinmorethanonecatalogandcanhavemore
thanonename.
Thenumbersfollowingtheletters,suchasMrk917(Sc)orNGC133(SB),
indicatethegalaxysentryinthecatalogandareoftenrelatedtothegalaxys
relativepositioninthesky.
11. What are colliding galaxies?
Whentwoormoregalaxiesarecloseenoughtoeachother,gravitationalforces
willpullthegalaxiestowardeachother.Thisgravitationalattractionincreasesas
thegalaxiestraveltowardeachother.Thegalaxiesthenmaypassbyeachother
orcollide.Twogalaxiesthatareinteractingorcollidingmaybereferredtoasa
pair,oronegalaxymaybereferredtoasacompanionoftheother.
TheHubbleimagesonthenextpageshowthatcollidinggalaxiescanlookvery
differentfromeachother.Theappearanceofaninteractingsystemofgalaxies
dependsonmanyfactors,includingthenumberofgalaxiesinvolvedintheinter-
action,theirmassesandtypes,howclosetheyare,andhowtheyapproacheach
other.TheAntennaeGalaxies(upperright,nextpage)areanexampleoftwo
spiralsthatareintheprocessofcolliding.Wewillnotseetheendresultduring
{ conr|nueo on page 7j
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As
7
ourlifetimesbecausethisprocesstakeshundredsofmillionsofyears.Sometimes
smallergalaxiesplungeintolargergalaxies.Thistypeofcollisionproducesaripple
effect,likearockthrownintoapond.TheCartwheelGalaxy(toprow,center)isan
exampleofthistypeofcollision.Theouterringofbluestarsinthisgalaxyindi-
catesarippleofstarformationresultingfromthecollision.
AndromedaandourMilkyWayaretwospiralgalaxiesthatmayeventuallycollide,
aboutbillionyearsinthefuture.
NGC4676 NGC4650A StephansQuintet
NGC1409&1410 ESO350&6040(CartwheelGalaxy) 4038&4039(TheAntennaeGalaxies)
Examples of Colliding Galaxies
{ conr|nueo lrom page 6j
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As

12. What is the Hubble Space Telescope?


TheHubbleSpaceTelescope(HST)isaspace-basedtelescopethatwasdeployedin
1990fromthespaceshuttle.Fromitsposition30milesabovetheEarthssurface,
theHSThasexpandedourunderstandingofstarbirth,stardeath,andgalaxy
evolution,andhasmovedblackholesfromtheorytofact.Ithastakenhundredsof
thousandsofimages.
Thetelescopesinstrumentsaretheastronomerseyestotheuniverse.Its
instrumentsincludetheWideFieldPlanetaryCamera(WFPC),theSpace
TelescopeImagingSpectrograph(STIS),theNearInfraredCameraandMulti-
ObjectSpectrometer(NICMOS),andtheAdvancedCameraforSurveys(ACS).
Whenfirstlaunched,theedgesoftheHSTslensweremisshapenbyanamount
equalto1/0thethicknessofahumanhair.Thisverysmalldefectmadeitdifficult
forHubbletofocusonfaintobjects.
BecausetheHSTisinlow-Earthorbit,itcouldbeservicedbyashuttle.Thedefect
wascorrectedinthefirstservicingmission,withtheinstallationofCOSTAR,
theCorrectiveOpticsSpaceTelescopeAxialReplacement.
Ifthetelescopeisservicedin00,itwillbeabletoobservetheuniverseuntil
approximately013.Afterthat,itwillbede-orbitedbyNASA,becomingaman-
madeshootingstar,asitburnsupuponre-enteringEarthsatmosphere.
13. What is the Hubble Deep Field?
TheHubbleSpaceTelescopereachedback10billionyearstocapturetheHubble
DeepFieldimage,whichshowssomeofthedimmest,mostdistantobjectsinthe
universe.Theimage,thelongestexposurethatHubblehadtakenatthetime,
wasmadebypointingthetelescopeatonepointintheskyfor10straightdaysin
December199.
{ conr|nueo on page 9j
NASA / Amazi ng Space Sci ence Background: Gal axy Q&As
9
TheHubbleDeepFieldshowshundredsofthousandsofgalaxiesinanareaofthe
skythatisassmallasthesizeofPresidentFranklinRooseveltseyeonadime
heldatarmslength.ThefieldliesinadarkpatchofskyjustabovetheBigDipper.
ThisfieldissosmallthatjustafewforegroundstarsinourMilkyWaygalaxy
arevisible.
14. What is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field?
In00,theHubbleUltraDeepFieldimagesurpassedtherecord-settingHubble
DeepFieldimages.
TheHUDFreachedbackevenfarther1.9billionyearstorevealover10,000
galaxies,someofwhichwerethefirstgalaxiestoemergeshortlyaftertheBig
Bang.(TheBigBangoccurred13.7billionyearsago.)TheHUDFnowholdsthe
recordasthedeepestportraitofthevisibleuniverseyetachievedbyhumankind.
Theimagewasmadebyaimingthetelescopeatonepointintheskybelowthecon-
stellationOrionfor11.3separatedays(fallingbetweenSept.003andJan.00),
resultinginamillion-second-longexposure.Thispatchofskylookslargelyempty
inground-basedimages.
Someofthegalaxiesuncoveredintheimageexistedbetween00and00million
yearsaftertheBigBang,longbeforeEarthandoursolarsystemexisted.Manyof
thesestill-forminggalaxiesexhibitstrangeshapes.
Aswithallastronomicalimages,sincethelightfromthesedistantgalaxiesmust
travelforbillionsofyearsbeforearrivingatEarth,weareseeingthegalaxiesas
theyappearedwhenthelightleftthem,billionsofyearsago.
{ conr|nueo lrom page 8j