Click the icon to view galaxies of the Messier catalog
The icon shows M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy.
Galaxies are large systems of stars and interstellar matter, typically
containing several million to some trillion stars, of masses between several
million and several trillion times that of our Sun, of an extension of a few
thousands to several 100,000s light years, typically separated by millions of
light years distance. They come in a variety of flavors: Spiral, lenticular,
elliptical and irregular. Besides simple stars, they typically contain various
types of star clusters and
We live in a giant spiral galaxy, the Milky Way
Galaxy, of 100,000 light years diameter and a mass of roughly a trillion
solar masses. The nearest dwarf galaxies, satellites of the Milky Way, are only
a few 100,000 light years distant, while the nearest giant neighbor, the
Andromeda Galaxy, also a spiral, is about 2-3
million light years distant.
Spiral galaxies usually consist of two major components: A flat, large disk
which often contains a lot of interstellar matter (visible sometimes as reddish
diffuse emission nebulae, or as dark dust clouds) and
young (open) star clusters and associations, which
have emerged from them (recognizable from the blueish light of their hottest,
short-living, most massive stars), often arranged in conspicuous and striking
spiral patterns and/or bar structures, and an ellipsoidally formed bulge
component, consisting of an old stellar population without interstellar matter,
and often associated with globular clusters.
The young stars in the disk are classified as stellar population I, the old
bulge stars as population II.
The luminosity and mass relation of these components seem to vary in a wide
range, giving rise to a classification scheme. The pattern structures in the
disk are most probably transient phenomena only, caused by gravitational
interaction with neighboring galaxies.
Our sun is one of several 100 billion stars in a spiral galaxy, the
These are, in short, "spiral galaxies without spiral structure", i.e. smooth
disk galaxies, where stellar formation has stopped long ago, because the
interstellar matter was used up. Therefore, they consist of old population II
stars only, or at least chiefly. From their appearance and stellar contents,
they can often hardly be distinguished from ellipticals observationally.
Elliptical galaxies are actually of ellipsoidal shape, and it is now quite safe
from observation that they are usually triaxial (cosmic footballs, as
Paul Murdin, David Allen, and David Malin put it). They have little or no
global angular momentum, i.e. do not rotate as a whole (of course, the stars
still orbit the centers of these galaxies, but the orbits are statistically
oriented so that only little net orbital angular momentum sums up). Normally,
elliptical galaxies contain very little or no interstellar matter, and consist
of old population II stars only: They appear like luminous bulges of spirals,
without a disk component.
However, for some ellipticals, small disk components have been discovered, so
that they may be representatives of one end of a common scheme of galaxy forms
which includes the disk galaxies.
Often due to distortion by the gravitation of their intergalactic neighbors,
these galaxies do not fit well into the scheme of disks and ellipsoids, but
exhibit peculiar shapes. A subclass of distorted disks is however frequently
The first known galaxies were longly known before their nature as "island
universes" came to light - this fact was finally proven only in 1923 by
Edwin Powell Hubble, when he found
Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda Galaxy M31.
Ancient observers have known the Milky Way and -
on the Southern Hemisphere - the Large and
the Small Magellanic Cloud since prehistoric
times, and there are speculations that also the
Andromeda Galaxy M31 may have been observed and
recorded as a nebulous patch by anonymous Babylonian observers around
1,300 B.C.. This object was certainly known to medevial Persian astronomers
before 905 A.D., and cataloged and described by Persian astronomer
Al Sufi in 964 A.D. All other galaxies
have been discovered only after the invention of the telescope:
The Triangulum Galaxy M33 was first seen by Italian
Priest astronomer G.B. Hodierna before
1654. Next, French astronomer Legentil
discovered M32, a companion of the Andromeda Galaxy,
in 1749, and his compatriot Abbé
Lacaille found M83 in 1752, the first galaxy
beyond the Local Group to be discovered. These six were all external galaxies
to be known, before Charles Messier
started to survey the sky for comets and "nebulae." His first original
discovery of a galaxy, M49, a giant elliptical
member of the Virgo Cluster, occurred in 1771.
The Messier Catalog in his modern form contains 40 galaxies, all but the two
Magellanic Clouds that have been found up to 1782.
Starting in 1783, William Herschel
found and cataloged over 2,500 star clusters and "nebulae" up to 1802, 2,143 of
them actually galaxies. J.L.E. Dreyer's NGC
catalog contains 6,029 (about 75.9%), and his IC catalog another 3,971 galaxies
From their appearance, galaxies are classified in types as given above, as
spiral, lenticular, elliptical, and irregular galaxies, where spirals may be
further classified for the presence of a bar (S: spirals, SAB: Intermediate,
SB: Barred spirals). More precisely, ellipticals are sub-classified for
ellipticity from E7 (strongly elongated) to E0 (circular), and spirals for
prominence of bulge versus spiral arms from Sa (or SABa, SBa) to Sc or Sd.
This so-called Hubble Classification Scheme can well be illustrated by
Galaxies of all types, though of a wide variety of shapes and appearances,
have many basic common features. They are huge agglomerations of stars like
our Sun, counting several millions to several trillions.
Most of the stars are not lonely in space like our Sun, but occur in pairs
(binaries) or multiple systems.
The most massive galaxies are giants which are a million times more massive
than the lightest: Their mass range is from at most some million times that
of our Sun in case of the smallest dwarfs, to several trillion solar masses
in case of giants like M87 or
Accordingly, the number of stars in them varies in the same range.
The linear size of galaxies also scatters, ranging from small dwarfs of few
thousands of light years diameter (like M32) to
respectable several 100,000 light years. Among the biggest Messier galaxies
are the Andromeda galaxy M31 and the bright active
Seyfert II galaxy M77.
Our Milky Way Galaxy, a spiral galaxy, is
among the massive and big galaxies with at least 250 billion solar masses
(there are hints that the total mass may even be as large as 750 billion to
1 trillion times that of the Sun) and a disk diameter of 100,000 light years.
Besides very many individual stars, most galaxies contain the following
Galaxies normally emit light of every wavelength, from the long radio and
microwave end over the IR, visual and UV light to the short, high-enregy
X- and gamma rays. Interstellar matter is coolest and therefore best
visible in radio and IR, while supernova remnants are most conspicuous in
the high-energy part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
- Globular star clusters, large but quite
compact agglomerations of some 100,000 to several million stars. These
large clusters have about the same mass as the smallest galaxies, and are
among the oldest objects in galaxies. Often, they form conspicuous systems,
and occur at galaxies of every type and size. The globular cluster systems
vary in a wide range in richness between the individual galaxies.
- As the stars develop, many of them leave nebulous remnants
(planetary nebulae or
supernova remnants) which then populate the galaxies.
- While the older stars, including the globular clusters, tend to form an
ellipsoidal bulge, the interstellar gas and dust tends to accumulate
in clouds near an equatorial disk, which is often conspicuous (i.e.,
in spiral and lenticular galaxies).
- The interstellar clouds are the places of star formation.
More acurately, huge
diffuse star-forming nebulae are places
(open) clusters and associations
of stars are formed.
- A rather dense galactic nucleus, which is somewhat similar to a
"superlarge" globular cluster. In many cases, galactic nuclei contain
supermassive dark objects, which
are often considered as Black Hole candidates.
Some of the more massive and conspicuous globulars are suspected to be the
remnants of former nuclei of small galaxies which have been disrupted and
cannibalized by larger galaxies.
Some galactic nuclei are remarkably distinguished from the average: These
so-called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) are intensive sources of light
of all wavelengths from radio to X-rays. The activities seen in the AGNs are
caused by gaseous matter falling into, and interacting with, the supermassive
central objects mentioned above, according to the current consensus of most
Sometimes, the spectra of these nuclei indicate enormous gaseous masses in
rapid motion; galaxies with such a nucleus are called
Seyfert galaxies (for their discoverer, Karl Seyfert).
M77 is the brightest Seyfert galaxy in the sky.
Few galaxies have even more exotic nuclei, which are extremely compact
and extremely bright, outshining their whole parent galaxy; these are called
quasars (an acronym for QUAsi-StellAR objects). From their properties,
quasars resemble extremely active Seyfert galaxy nuclei.
However, quasars are so rare and the nearest is so remote that the brightest
about 2 billion lightyears away in the constellation Virgo, is only of
magnitude 13.7, and none of them is in Messier's or even in the NGC or IC
Occasionally, at irregular intervals given by chance, in any type of galaxies,
a supernova occurs: This is a star suddenly brightning to a high luminosity
which may well outshine the whole galaxy; the maximal absolute magnitude of
a supernova may well reach -19 to -20 magnitudes. This remarkable phenomenon
has attracted the attention of many astronomers (equally both professionals
and amateurs), who observe galaxies regularly as they "hunt" supernovae.
Supernovae have been observed in
several Messier catalog galaxies.
According to our current scientific understanding, at least most galaxies
(including our Milky Way and those in Messier's catalog) have formed during
a comparatively short period, at about the same time, within the first billion
years after the universe started to expand, from an initial hot state.
Thus they are all almost as old as the universe itself, currently thought to be
about 10-15 billion years.
It is thought that galaxy formation started when primordial clouds of gaseous
matter (hydrogen and helium), the proto-galaxies, were singled out and started
to collapse by their own gravity.
According to computer simulations, the variety of galaxy forms results from
different initial parameters of the proto-galaxies such as the amount of
(initial) angular momentum, as well as their later evolution in their
environments, such as interaction with other neighboring galaxies.
Messier's galaxies are not deitributed equally across the sky, but can be
grouped into a large group of Northern Spring/Southern Fall, and a smaller
Northern Fall/Southern Spring group:
In the regions between, there are RA ranges without any Messier galaxies
(3-8 and 16-23h in RA); these include the regions of the Milky Way band
of stars which obscures the background galaxies.
Imagery and atlasses:
- Northern Fall/Southern Spring galaxies (6):
- Northern Spring/Southern Fall galaxies (34):
- Virgo Cluster Galaxies (16):
- Galaxies in Leo (5):
- Galaxies in and around Ursa Major (11):
- Southern galaxies (2):
Of course, fine galaxy photos can be found in many more general astronomy books
- Allan Sandage. The Hubble Atlas of Galaxies.
Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1961.
185 superb black & white photographs of galaxies of all types,
obtained by the Mt. Palomar and Mt. Wilson Observatory telescopes, with
captions and data, and a technical and scientific introduction.
- James D. Wray. The Color Atlas of Galaxies.
Cambridge University Press, 1988. 3-color (UBV) images of 616 galaxies
(including all Messier galaxies but M89), taken with telescopes at the
McDonald Observatory, Texas, and the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory,
Chile, with data and captions.
- Timothy Ferris. Galaxies. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1980.
Superb book (look to get the more expensive full-size edition) with
color and b/w photographs of galaxies and some other objects, from various
Special observing Guides:
Most general Deep Sky Observing Guides are good as well.
- Dimitri Mihalas and James Binney. Galactic Astronomy.
W.H. Freeman, 1981 (probably out of print).
Now replaced by: James Binney and Michael Merrifield.
Galactic Astronomy. Princeton University Press, 1998.
This is a good introduction and review especially for the observational
properties of galaxies (as they were known at the time of publication).
- James Binney and Scott Tremaine. Galactic Dynamics.
Princeton Series in Astrophysics, Princeton University Press, 1987.
In-depth treatment of the physics of galaxies.
Some mathematical and physical background is required for this book.
- Paul W. Hodge. Galaxies. Harvard University Press, 1986.
- Richard Berendzen, Richard Hart, and Daniel Seeley.
Man Discovers the Galaxies. Science History Publications,
Neale Watson Academic Publications, New York 1976.
Some galaxies are isolated "island universes" which float lonely through an
otherwise empty region of the universe. But usually, space is too densely
crowded with them, so that they form groups of some galaxies (or some dozens
of galaxies), or even large clusters of up to several thousands of galaxies.
The galaxies of these groups are in mutual gravitational interaction which
may have significant influence on their appearance.
Last Modification: September 24, 2007