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Galaxy Clusters

Explanations and Interpretations


The parts of any galaxy start with the central engine. This is referred to as either a black hole or plasmoid, depending on which model you ascribe to. The central engine includes the spinning disk around it. In the gravitational model, this is referred to as the accretion disk. Jets of plasma shoot out from poles of the central engine.

galaxy central engine

Outside of that are the closest stars, which are rotating around the central engine. All of this together is referred to as the core of the galaxy. Surrounding the core (or galactic center) is the area referred to as the nucleus, which appears as a central bulge. The arms of the galaxy extend out from the nucleus.


The galactic center, then, includes the central engine, the spinning disk around it, and the closest stars as well as the galactic bulge.


History: In ancient times, men looked up and saw the sun, moon and stars. There were "wandering stars" which were called planets, but they were all stars. Although Ptolemy, about 150 AD, put the Earth at the center of the solar system with seven planets ranged outward from it, it was not until Copernicus, in 1543, that observation and mathematics, put the Sun at the center, with the planets going around it. At this point in time, however, the planets were still considered stars -- stars that went around the Earth. That the sun itself was a very close star had been considered, and argued about, since the time of the Greeks. As mentioned in an article on Newton:

The world of the heavens seemed so different from the world here on Earth that Aristotle envisioned the two realms to be governed by two entirely different sets of laws. Inside the orbit of the moon was the changeable world inhabited by people, where objects would fall downwards, toward the center of the universe—which he thought to be the center of the Earth. Beyond the orbit of the moon was the world of the heavens, where objects would travel in perfect circles. The two realms even consisted of different materials—earth, air, fire and water for the world we inhabit, and quintessence as the substances that make up the world beyond.

In the 17th century, with the invention of the telescope, it was Galileo who found that the planets were not stars. His observations confirmed that Copernicus' view of heliocentricity (the sun is the center and not the earth) was correct.

At this point, though, everything outside our solar system was still considered to be stars. Gradually, as telescopes were improved, nebulas were spotted. By 1750, both gas clouds and nebulas had been seen. William Herschel found that some of the nebulas which were seen appeared to have a spiral shape, but there did not seem to be anything remarkable about that.

In 1861, William and Margaret Huggins, using a spectroscope invented by Robert Bunsen, showed that the stars were actually suns.

The Milky Way was thought to be the entire universe until early in the 20th century. In 1918 the size of our galaxy, and our place in it, was approximately established due to the work of Harlow Shapley.

Shapley was also one of the most important contributors to solving the puzzle of the odd cloud-like objects collectively referred to as nebulae.  Since William Herschel catalogued more than 2,500 of the objects, the construction of bigger and better telescopes revealed many more of them with a rich diversity of shapes and structures, including globular clusters.  But there was a controversy about the locations of these objects. Shapley and other astronomers believed that all of these objects were contained within the Milky Way, and that in fact there was just one galaxy in the universe—ours.  The other camp, lead by Heber Curtis, believed that at least some of the nebulae were in fact whole galaxies at vast distances.

Controversy is vital to the advancement of science because it helps focus attention on important questions and spurs individual scientists to gather new and better evidence, leading to greater insights. Such was the case of the nebulae. Curtis and Shapley met in April, 1920 to settle the question.  Both astronomers distinguished themselves quite well in the debate, but scientific debates are not won on the basis good logic.  The question would need to simmer for a few more years, until Edmund Hubble’s discovery of Cepheid variables in the Andromeda galaxy.

Two years later, Hubble noted that there seemed to be collections of stars within the spiral nebulas. By 1924, he had measured the distances to these stars. These distances were at a strong variance with the concept of the Milky Way being the entire universe, especially considering its size as determined by Shapley. It was due to Hubble's work that it was acknowledged that there were other galaxies out there and they were given the name "island universes." Because our galaxy had been considered the universe, the others were considered individual universes, too.

As time went on, and telescopes became larger and more sophisticated, we found that things that looked like stars were actually entire galaxies.

Coma galaxy cluster

In the above photograph, taken at the New Hope Observatory, there is only one actual star in it. It is the one with the 'rays' coming out from it in the lower right. Every other point of light in this photograph is a galaxy.

Eventually, we found that these galaxies, numbering in the billions, extended out to what appears to be the very edge of the universe. Each of them has billions of stars, the same way our Milky Way does.

How did they find out these were galaxies? As they focused on each of the 'fuzzy' objects with a time-lapse photograph, what emerged was a nucleus with spiral arms around it. The arms contained billions of stars. It had already been determined in 1944, that Population II stars, with the red giants, were older than the Population I stars, which had the blue giants. Thus, when astronomers were examining the newfound galaxies, they noticed some appeared much redder than others. This led to the conclusion that the red galaxies were much older than the blue galaxies. Today this is not considered a hard and fast rule, but the fact that it was considered to be true not so long ago led to some very interesting discoveries.

To understand the idea that there were two competing theories about galaxies, it is necessary to understand that, by the middle of the 20th century, there were two competing ideas regarding the universe itself. The first, and most ancient, was the 'steady state' model: the universe had always been the way it is seen today. This concept was formalized by Gold, Bondi, and Hoyle. Thus, in any one part of space you could see both old and young galaxies. In other words, ages and the distances of galaxies were not coordinated. They did modify the ancient idea by accepting the idea that the redshift of light from the distant galaxies, however, indicating the universe was expanding. The idea opposing the steady state model had been sparked by Einstein and carried forward by George Gamow and Ralph Alpher. They proposed that the universe had started as a very small bit of matter and suddenly expanded. Hoyle, ridiculing this idea of a rapid expansion, referred to it sarcastically as the "Big Bang," a moniker that has stuck.

What is seen, regardless of models, are galaxies that are apart from our Milky Way, some being large, some small, and some at incredibly great distances.

Distribution of Galaxies: Galaxies are not randomly scattered throughout the universe. They occur in groups, but as we look out, these groups actually appear to line up.

filament galaxies

In the above plot of galaxy positions, each green, yellow and blue dot represents the position of a galaxy. The red dots are large galaxy clusters. The blue lines are the filamentary connections among them.

Although the above illustration is plotting galaxies at a medium distance (about 550 million light years away; the "0" in the lower left hand corner is where we are) from us, this filamentary structure appears to be universal.

Shapes of Galaxies: The main galaxy types are: Spirals, Ellipticals, Lenticular (cross between spiral and elliptical), and Irregular. Then there are those considered "peculiar" galaxies.

Spirals are classified according to the size of the nucleus and the development of the arms.  In the designations, the capital “S” stands for “spiral” and the alphabet letter after it (a, b, or c) indicates the size of the nucleus, which is related to how well the spiral arms are defined.  Sa galaxies have the largest nuclei, but the most tightly wound  spiral arms.  Sb (M81)galaxies have medium sized nuclei with defined spiral arms. Sc spirals have a small nucleus with prominent arms.

The Sombrero spiral galaxy, seen almost on edge below, is a type Sa with a prominent nucleus. The closely wound spiral arms can be seen on the right hand side of the disk.

Sombrero Galaxy


A good example of an Sb galaxy is M81



Spiral galaxy M101 (Pinwheel) an Sc galaxy with small center and well-developed arms


Barred spiral galaxies, such as our Milky Way, have similar designations.  They all start with a capital SB, meaning “barred spiral,” with a small letter designation following, again related to the size of the bar and the prominence of the arms.
Barred spiral NGC 1300, below, is an SBb type (strong bar and arms still wrapped around)



Elliptical galaxies are classified according to how spherical they are, with E0 being completely spherical and E7 being the most flattened. Most ellipticals contain a similar number of stars as spirals, but spirals are flattened disks whereas elliptical are spherical or football shaped. Some elliptical galaxies can be small, but some, such as M87, below, can be of giant size compared with spirals. M87 has a halo of over 1000 globular clusters associated with it. They can be seen as dots that look like stars around the galaxy itself.



Lenticular galaxies are like flattened elliptical galaxies, with a central bulge that is somewhat separated from a surrounding disk. But the disk lacks any of the spiral structure. An example of this is NGC 2787, below:

lenticular galaxy


Irregular galaxies: Usually smaller than spirals and elliptical galaxies, they are often satellites of large galaxies.  The Magellanic Clouds are two small, irregular galaxies which are satellites of our Milky Way. They have no discernible structure. Below: Small Magellanic Cloud an irregular galaxy 220,000 light years distance. The object in the upper right corner of the image is the Globular Cluster 47 Tucanae, which is actually much closer to us at about 16,500 light years.

small Magellanic

Peculiar Galaxies: By definition, a peculiar galaxy is one which either does not fit into the usual classifications or is abnormal in size, shape or composition. They are similar in size to regular spirals or elliptical and some feature jets coming from the nucleus. Peculiar galaxies are divided into two types: First interacting galaxies. Examples include Arp 272 (number 272 in Halton Arp’s Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies) shown below here where two spiral galaxies are interacting.


Another is Arp 142. The blue component at the top is a distorted spiral galaxy sometimes called “the Penguin” or “the Hummingbird” because of its shape. The white elliptical galaxy below it is associated with the distortion, and is sometimes called “the Egg”. The blue component is that color because of the intense burst of star formation (notably blue giants) that the interaction has produced.


A third example is Arp 238, a pair of interacting spiral galaxies. The interaction has united the two galaxies by a bridge of material and has formed two strongly curved tails of gas and young blue stars.


The "bridges" between galaxies such as these are millions of light years long. They are composed of gas, dust, and stars.

 The second classification among Peculiar Galaxies is Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). The AGN types are assigned to one or other of the following categories: Radio Galaxy, Blazar, Quasar, Seyfert Galaxy, Relativistic Jets. Later, it was discovered that most of the examples in these categories were Quasars viewed from different angles as shown below.

galactic nucleus illustration


The initials BLR stand for the Broad Line Radio emissions that come from dense, fast moving ionized clouds.
The NLR region is where Narrow Line Radio emission originates in diffuse, slower moving clouds to the sides of jets.
The Jets themselves are made up of plasma moving at speeds very close to that of light.

galaxy core

These AGN are normal sized galaxies with a compact region at the galaxy center which is very luminous and active at a variety of wavelengths. Jets originate in a small region within the galaxy core. In contrast, the radio lobes often extend to huge distances beyond the galaxy. Here are some examples among many.

This composite image of Centaurus A is complete with radio lobes (purple) and jets which are bright in X-rays. The dark bands around the center define an object similar in appearance and size to dusty spiral arms in a normal galaxy. Other features are similar to a giant elliptical.  It is 13 million light years away and has a mass ten times that of the Milky Way.



 If all the radio emissions were visible to the naked eye, Centaurus A would look like this in our skies with the full moon.


Radio Galaxy Hercules A below is actually a giant elliptical galaxy more than 1000 times as massive as the Milky Way. That elliptical is the bright fuzzy region in the center. The Jets of high energy plasma are visible in the radio region of the spectrum and also emit X-rays. They dwarf the galaxy itself since each jet extends about 1.5 million light years out from the core.



Typical Quasar is shown below



Blazar: the core and high-speed jet of hot plasma from the giant elliptical M87


Seyfert galaxies are always spiral galaxies with exceptionally bright cores radiating strongly at all wavelengths. This one is the core of NGC 1097 seen from an acute angle.

Seyfert Galaxy


The first quasar discovered was 3C273 in Virgo. This was the 273rd object in the 3rd Cambridge Catalogue of distant objects. Its true nature was found by Maaten Schmidt and Bev Oke in 1973 when its distance was measured as about 2.5 billion light years. It was discovered to have visible jets 200,000 light years long. Later, in the early 1970’s, it was found that the plasma in the jets was traveling at speeds close to that of light. When the light from the quasar was blocked by an occulting disk or bar, the giant elliptical galaxy surrounding it emerged. The quasar was simply the center of the galaxy.

Up till this point in time, many active galactic nuclei (AGN) were mis-identified as variable stars with unusual spectra. Further investigation revealed their distances and then their true nature. Initially various classes of object were assigned to them such as radio-galaxy, seyfert galaxy, quasar etc. Later it was discovered that all these various designations were actually the same object (a quasar) but seen from different angles.

These objects are intensely bright in all wavelengths, but they are also small. This is deduced from the fact that the brightness of the whole object varies significantly over a period of one day or, in some cases, a number of hours. This means that the whole object must have a maximum size of a “light day” or else its brightness would not be able to vary as a whole over this period of time. Thus quasars produce an intense amount of light from a very small volume. This poses a problem for astronomers whose options on quasar energy production is limited.

The central engine of the light production has gaseous material whirling around it in a disk. The speed at which this material is whirling can be measured by the amount of broadening of spectral lines.  This indicates that extremely high speeds are involved. Stars also orbit the central engine in our own galaxy at high speed. However, the evidence suggests that something other than gravity may be involved since there has been no observed gravitational lensing of the stars or the disks, despite a search for the last 15 years. If massive gravity was involved, the double or multiple images produced by gravitational lensing would have been seen.

The central engine also produces the jets as well. This, too, has been a problem for standard astrophysics. In early May 2015 spectroscopic analysis revealed lines on the spectrum of the jets which are called cyclotron lines. These are produced when electrons spiral around in a strong magnetic field. Using these data, it was established for the first time that the magnetic field in the vicinity of the central engine of a quasar is of the order of 200 million Gauss. This is about 500 million times stronger than the magnetic field associated with the earth. Since all magnetic fields require an electric current to produce them, the electric current would have to be of the order of 1020 Amps.

Quasars become more numerous the further out into space we look. They become very prominent at great distances. It is now believed that, initially, every galaxy center had a quasar, and that this activity has died down as the universe got older. This discovery marked the effective end of the old Steady State theory and led to way to the standard Big Bang model we have today.

Galaxy Cores: There are two theories about what is in the middle of each galaxy. Both theories have to deal with the fact that objects close to the core are whirling around it at enormous speeds. Both theories have to deal with the fact that, once out of the core area, both the inner and outer arms of the associated galaxies are rotating around the cores at the same speed, quite unlike what we see in our solar system, where the farther out an object is, the longer it takes to orbit the sun. Both theories have to deal with the fact that jets of material are being ejected from these cores. Both theories also have to deal with the enormous amount of energy generated by quasars in such relatively small volumes. The first theory explains galaxy cores gravitationally and the second electromagnetically. Further discussion of these theories is best dealt with in the Explanations and Interpretations section.

Galaxy Clusters: After Hubble had realized there were galaxies at a great distance from our own, it was thought that these "island universes" were isolated entities throughout the universe. Then it was discovered that galaxies were actually in clusters -- some large and some small. Our own Local Group of galaxies is one such cluster, but it is a relatively small one. For this reason -- because there are so few members in it -- it is called "poor." We only have about forty galaxies in the Local Group, spread over a distance of 3.5 million light years. Of these, there are only three spiral galaxies: the Milky Way, and Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33). The rest of the galaxies are small satellite galaxies: irregulars, dwarf ellipticals, and something we call dwarf spheroidal. This last group, the dwarf spheroidals, are too small to be seen in any other galaxy cluster.

local group

Andromeda M33

On the left is the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Both above it to the right and below it to the left can be seen the bright spots of two satellite galaxies. On the right is the Triangulum Galaxy (M33).

Two of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The large is on the left and the small is on the right.

Large Mag Cloud small Mag Cloud

The red spot next to the Large Magellanic Cloud is the Tarantula Nebula, within which there is a supernova. On the right, above the Small Magellanic Cloud is a globular cluster (47Tucanae), which is actually much closer to us than the Cloud.

Unlike our small Local Group, a large galaxy cluster may have up to one thousand members. The Coma Cluster is one of these.

Coma Cluster

Every point of light in this photograph is an entire galaxy, except one. The only star in it is the bright one with the rays toward the bottom right.

It was found that there are not only clusters of galaxies, but there are also clusters of clusters. These are called "super clusters." Our Local Group of Galaxies is part of the Virgo Supercluster.

Virgo Supercluster

One thing to notice in the above illustration is that the clusters themselves are lined up along two intersecting plasma filaments.

As pointed out above, the entire structure of the universe is along filamentary lines.

filament galaxies



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