Hubble's Galaxies

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, sits in a Local Group of more than 20 galaxies, but Hubble’s vision takes us far beyond our celestial neighborhood.

Galaxies are the visible foundation of the universe; each one a collection of stars, planets, gas, dust, and dark matter held together by gravity. Hubble’s observations give us insight into how galaxies form, grow, and evolve through time. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; Lead Producer: Miranda Chabot; Lead Writer: Andrea Gianopoulos

Overview

Our Sun is just one of a vast number of stars within a galaxy called the Milky Way, which in turn is only one of the billions of galaxies in our universe. These massive cosmic neighborhoods, made up of stars, dust, and gas held together by gravity, come in a variety of sizes, from dwarf galaxies containing as few as 100 million stars to giant galaxies of more than a trillion stars. Astronomers generally classify galaxies into three major categories: spiral – like our Milky Way – elliptical, and irregular.

Spiral Galaxies

Spiral galaxies have winding spiral arms that make them look a little like massive pinwheels. These disks of stars, gas, and dust have bright bulges in their centers made up primarily of older and dimmer stars. Their whirled arms are typically full of gas and dust, which helps give rise to the bright, younger stars visible throughout their length. Spiral galaxies are actively forming stars and make up a large amount of all the galaxies in our nearby universe.

Spiral galaxies can be further divided into two groups: normal spirals and barred spirals. In barred spirals, a bar of stars runs through the central bulge of the galaxy. The arms of barred spirals usually start at the end of the bar instead of the bulge. Our Milky Way is thought to be a barred spiral galaxy.

a large, face-on spiral galaxy fills the image. It's bright core is surrounded by pinkish-red dusty spiral arms
The Whirlpool Galaxy is a spiral galaxy located 31 million light-years away. Also known as M51, it highlights the attributes of a typical spiral galaxy, including graceful, curving arms, pink star-forming regions, and brilliant blue strands of star clusters.
NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Elliptical Galaxies

Elliptical galaxies are the biggest and most common galaxies in our universe. The shapes of these galaxies range from circular to very elongated. Galaxies are thought to form and grow by collisions and mergers, and elliptical galaxies may be the ultimate result of this process, which explains why they are so abundant. Compared to other types of galaxies, elliptical galaxies have smaller portions of gas and dust, contain older stars, and don’t form many new stars. The largest and rarest of these galaxies – known as giant ellipticals – are about 300,000 light-years across. More commonly spotted are dwarf ellipticals, which in comparison are only a few thousand light-years wide.

Irregular Galaxies

Irregular galaxies don’t contain much dust, and lack a defined shape. Astronomers often see irregular galaxies as they peer deeply into the universe. These galaxies are abundant in the early universe, in the era before spirals and ellipticals developed. As irregular galaxies collide and merge with other galaxies throughout time, they are thought to develop structure and become the spiral and elliptical galaxies we see in today’s universe.

In addition to these three big categories, astronomers have also observed many unusually shaped galaxies that appear to be in a transitory or “in-between” phase of galactic evolution, including galaxies that are colliding or interacting with each other, pulled together by gravity.

bright white and pink clouds and blue-white stars bisect the image from lower left to upper right
The dwarf irregular galaxy NGC 4214 resides about 10 million light-years away. The galaxy's relative proximity, combined with the wide variety of evolutionary stages among its stars, make it an ideal laboratory to research the triggers of star formation and evolution.
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration; Acknowledgment: R. O'Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee

Hubble’s Impact

For over three decades, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped scientists gain a greater understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. The telescope has observed some of the farthest galaxies ever seen, thanks to its iconic deep field imagery. Among its famous observations is the Hubble Ultra Deep field, the deepest image of the universe ever made at visible and near-infrared wavelengths, and revealed over 10,000 galaxies in a small patch of sky.

Thanks to Hubble’s observations, astronomers have traced the evolution and formation of galaxies, discovered that most galaxies contain supermassive black holes, and mapped the presence of the mysterious dark matter that makes up most of the universe’s mass and structure. Hubble has viewed galaxies that spin backwards, unusually close galaxies dancing together before colliding to form a giant ellpitical, and ring-shaped galaxies that may have formed through gravitational interactions with nearby or passing galaxies. The sheer diversity of the galaxies observed by Hubble has vastly increased our understanding of the universe and its shining islands of stars.

Hubble’s observations of galaxies continue today, revealing the history of galaxies throughout the universe and shedding light on how our galaxy – and with it, our tiny corner of the cosmos – came into being.

a myriad of colorful galaxies, in all shapes, sizes, and forms, dot the image
Approximately 10,000 galaxies fill a small area of sky called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. This is the deepest image of the universe ever made at optical and near-infrared wavelengths.
NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith and the HUDF Team (STScI), and B. Mobasher (STScI)

Hubble's Galaxies Gallery

Entrancing Galaxy in Eridanus: NGC 685
Click the arrows to see some of Hubble's most stunning galaxy images.

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