The Universe


The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51, is a spiral galaxy about 23 million light-years from Earth. Its interactions with the yellowish dwarf galaxy NGC 5195 are of interest to astronomers because the galaxies are near enough to Earth to be well-studied.Decades ago astronomers could not tell if these two galaxies were just passing each other but radio astronomy has supplied astronomers with important data outlining their interactions. Using this data, astronomers have simulated the interaction. NGC 5195 came from behind and then passed through the main disk of M51 about 500 to 600 million years ago. The dwarf galaxy crossed the disk again between 50 and 100 million years ago and is now slightly behind M51. These interactions appear to have intensified the spiral arms that are the dominant characteristic of the Whirlpool Galaxy.Astronomers are able to learn about objects unimaginably far away from Earth using telescopes that sense all wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. Imagine what Galileo would do if he could see the images and data astronomers have available to them now. The study of the universe is called cosmologyCosmologists study the structure and changes in the present universe. The universe contains all of the star systems, galaxies, gas and dust, plus all the matter and energy that exists now, that existed in the past, and that will exist in the future. The universe includes all of space and time.LEARNING OUTCOMES

  • Understand the scientific ideas of how the universe formed and is expanding
  • Compare and contrast the difference and similarities between dark matter and dark energy
  • Describe star systems and the various types of galaxies

Expanding Universe


What did the ancient Greeks recognize as the universe? In their model, the universe contained Earth at the center, the Sun, the Moon, five planets, and a sphere to which all the stars were attached. This idea held for many centuries until Galileo’s telescope helped allow people to realize that Earth is not the center of the universe. They also found out that there are many more stars than were visible to the naked eye. All of those stars were in the Milky Way Galaxy.

In the early 20th century, an astronomer named Edwin Hubble Figure below discovered that what scientists called the Andromeda Nebula was actually over 2 million light years away, many times farther than the farthest distances that had ever been measured. Hubble realized that many of the objects that astronomers called nebulas were not actually clouds of gas, but were collections of millions or billions of stars that we now call galaxies.

Hubble showed that the universe was much larger than our own galaxy. Today, we know that the universe contains about a hundred billion galaxies, about the same number of galaxies as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. After discovering that there are galaxies beyond the Milky Way, Edwin Hubble went on to measure the distance to hundreds of other galaxies. His data would eventually show how the universe is changing, and would even yield clues as to how the universe formed. Today we know know that the universe in nearly 14 billion years old.
If you look at a star through a prism, you will see a spectrum, or a range of colors through the rainbow. The spectrum will have specific dark bands where elements in the star absorb light of certain energies. By examining the arrangement of these dark absorption lines, astronomers can determine the composition of elements that make up a distant star. In fact, the element helium was first discovered in our Sun, not on Earth, by analyzing the absorption lines in the spectrum of the Sun.While studying the spectrum of light from distant galaxies, astronomers noticed something strange. The dark lines in the spectrum were in the patterns they expected, but they were shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, as shown in Figure below. This shift of absorption bands toward the red end of the spectrum is known as redshift.Redshift occurs when the light source is moving away from the observer or when the space between the observer and the source is stretched. What does it mean that stars and galaxies are redshifted? When astronomers see redshift in the light from a galaxy, they know that the galaxy is moving away from Earth. What astronomers are noticing is that all the galaxies have a redshift, strongly indicating that all galaxies are moving away from each other causing the Universe to expand.Redshift can occur with other types of waves too, called the Doppler Effect. An analogy to redshift is the noise a siren makes as it passes you. You may have noticed that an ambulance seems to lower the pitch of its siren after it passes you. The sound waves shift towards a lower pitch when the ambulance speeds away from you. Though redshift involves light instead of sound, a similar principle operates in both situations. Click here to view an animation of Doppler Effect.



Edwin Hubble combined his measurements of the distances to galaxies with other astronomers’ measurements of redshift. From this data, he noticed a relationship, which is now called Hubble’s Law. The law states that the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us. What this leads to is the hypothesis that the universe is expanding. For an animation demonstrating the expanding universe, click here.The figure here by NASA shows a simplified diagram of the expansion of the universe. If you look closely at the diagram, you that on the left was the formation of the universe and the energy is quite high. Over the course of the 13.7 billion years, the energy begins to cool enough to create trillions of stars and over time develop into galaxies. Over time, the galaxies continue to cool and expand farther apart from each other.n

Formation of the Universe


Before Hubble, most astronomers thought that the universe didn’t change. But if the universe is expanding, what does that say about where it was in the past? If the universe is expanding, the next logical thought is that in the past it had to have been smaller.

The Big Bang theory is the most widely accepted cosmological explanation of how the universe formed. If we start at the present and go back into the past, the universe is contracting, getting smaller and smaller. What is the end result of a contracting universe?

According to the Big Bang theory, the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago. Everything that is now in the universe was squeezed into a very small volume. Imagine all of the known universe in a single, hot, chaotic mass. An enormous explosion — a big bang — caused the universe to start expanding rapidly. All the matter and energy in the universe, and even space itself, came out of this explosion. What came before the Big Bang? There is no way for scientists to know since there is no remaining evidence.


In the first few moments after the Big Bang, the universe was unimaginably hot and dense. As the universe expanded, it became less dense and began to cool. After only a few seconds, protons, neutrons, and electrons could form. After a few minutes, those subatomic particles came together to create hydrogen. Energy in the universe was great enough to initiate nuclear fusion and hydrogen nuclei were fused into helium nuclei. The first neutral atoms that included electrons did not form until about 380,000 years later.The matter in the early universe was not smoothly distributed across space. Dense clumps of matter held close together by gravity were spread around. Eventually, these clumps formed countless trillions of stars, billions of galaxies, and other structures that now form most of the visible mass of the universe. If you look at an image of galaxies at the far edge of what we can see, you are looking at great distances. But you are also looking across a different type of distance. What do those far away galaxies represent? Because it takes so long for light from so far away to reach us, you are also looking back in time.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy


The Big Bang theory is still the best scientific model we have for explaining the formation of the universe and many lines of evidence support it. However, recent discoveries continue to shake up our understanding of the universe. Astronomers and other scientists are now wrestling with some unanswered questions about what the universe is made of and why it is expanding. A lot of what cosmologists do is create mathematical models and computer simulations to account for these unknown phenomena, such as dark energy and dark matter.

The things we observe in space are objects that emit some type of electromagnetic radiation. However, scientists think that matter that emits light makes up only a small part of the matter in the universe. The rest of the matter, about 80 percent, is dark matter.Dark matter emits no electromagnetic radiation so we can’t observe it directly. However, astronomers know that dark matter exists because its gravity affects the motion of objects around it. When astronomers measure how spiral galaxies rotate, they find that the outside edges of a galaxy rotate at the same speed as parts closer to the center. This can only be explained if there is a lot more matter in the galaxy than they can see.

Gravitational lensing occurs when light is bent from a very distant bright source around a super-massive object. To explain strong gravitational lensing, more matter than is observed must be present. With so little to go on, astronomers don’t really know much about the nature of dark matter. One possibility is that it could just be ordinary matter that does not emit radiation in objects such as black holes, neutron stars, and brown dwarfs, objects larger than Jupiter but smaller than the smallest stars. But astronomers cannot find enough of these types of objects, which they have named MACHOS (massive astrophysical compact halo object), to account for all the dark matter, so they are thought to be only a small part of the total.

Another possibility is that the dark matter is thought to be much different from the ordinary matter we see. Some appear to be particles that have gravity, but don’t otherwise appear to interact with other particles. Scientists call these theoretical particles WIMPs, which stands for Weakly Interactive Massive Particles.

Most scientists who study dark matter think that the dark matter in the universe is a combination of MACHOS and some type of exotic matter such as WIMPs. Researching dark matter is an active area of scientific research, and astronomers’ knowledge about dark matter is changing rapidly.

Astronomers who study the expansion of the universe are interested in knowing the rate of that expansion. Is the rate fast enough to overcome the attractive pull of gravity?

  • If yes, then the universe will expand forever, although the expansion will slow down over time.
  • If no, then the universe would someday start to contract, and eventually get squeezed together in a big crunch, the opposite of the Big Bang.

Recently astronomers have made a discovery that answers that question: the rate at which the universe is expanding is actually increasing. In other words, the universe is expanding faster now than ever before, and in the future it will expand even faster. So now astronomers think that the universe will keep expanding forever. But it also proposes a perplexing new question: What is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate? One possible hypothesis involves a new, hypothetical form of energy called dark energy. Some scientists think that dark energy makes up as much as 72% of the total energy content of the universe.

Star Systems


Although constellations have stars that usually only appear to be close together, stars may be found in the same portion of space. Stars that are grouped closely together are called star systems. Larger groups of hundreds or thousands of stars are called star clusters. The image shown here is a famous star cluster classed M45, also known as Pleides, which can be seen with the naked autumn sky.

Although the star humans know best is a single star, many stars—in fact, more than half of the bright stars in our galaxy—are star systems. A system of two stars orbiting each other is a binary star. A system with more than two stars orbiting each other is a multiple star system. The stars in a binary or multiple star system are often so close together that they appear as one and only through a telescope can the pair be distinguished.

Star clusters are divided into two main types, open clusters and globular clusters. Open clusters are groups of up to a few thousand stars that are loosely held together by gravity. Pleiades is an open cluster that is also called the Seven Sisters. Open clusters tend to be blue in color and often contain glowing gas and dust. Why do you think that open clusters have these features? Open clusters are made of young stars that formed from the same nebula. The stars may eventually be pulled apart by gravitational attraction to other objects.


Globular clusters are groups of tens to hundreds of thousands of stars held tightly together by gravity. Figure below shows an example of a globular cluster. Globular clusters have a definite, spherical shape and contain mostly reddish stars. The stars are closer together, closer to the center of the cluster. Globular clusters don’t have much dust in them — the dust has already formed into stars.

To view more amazing images taken by the Hubble telescope, click here. If you would like to download free eBooks of Hubble imagery, click here.

Types of Galaxies

Galaxies are the biggest groups of stars and can contain anywhere from a few million stars to many billions of stars. Every star that is visible in the night sky is part of the Milky Way Galaxy. To the naked eye the closest major galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, looks like only a dim, fuzzy spot but that fuzzy spot contains one trillion stars.


Spiral galaxies spin, so they appear as a rotating disk of stars and dust, with a bulge in the middle, like the Sombrero Galaxy. Several arms spiral outward in the Pinwheel Galaxy and are appropriately called spiral arms. Spiral galaxies have lots of gas and dust and lots of young stars.Figure below shows a typical egg-shaped elliptical galaxy. The smallest elliptical galaxies are as small as some globular clusters. Giant elliptical galaxies, on the other hand, can contain over a trillion stars. Elliptical galaxies are reddish to yellowish in color because they contain mostly old stars.Most elliptical galaxies contain very little gas and dust because they had already formed. However, some elliptical galaxies contain lots of dust. Why might some elliptical galaxies contain dust?


Galaxies that are not clearly elliptical galaxies or spiral galaxies are irregular galaxies. Most irregular galaxies were once spiral or elliptical galaxies that were then deformed either by gravitational attraction to a larger galaxy or by a collision with another galaxy.Dwarf galaxies are small galaxies containing only a few million to a few billion stars. Dwarf galaxies are the most common type in the universe. However, because they are relatively small and dim, we don’t see as many dwarf galaxies from Earth. Most dwarf galaxies are irregular in shape. However, there are also dwarf elliptical galaxies and dwarf spiral galaxiesLook back at the picture of the spiral galaxy, Andromeda. Next to our closest galaxy neighbor are two dwarf elliptical galaxies that are companions to the Andromeda Galaxy. One is a bright sphere to the left of center, and the other is a long ellipse below and to the right of center. Dwarf galaxies are often found near larger galaxies. They sometimes collide with and merge into their larger neighbors.

Milky Way Galaxy


On a dark, clear night, you will see a milky band of light stretching across the sky. This band is the disk of a galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, is our galaxy and is made of millions of stars along with a lot of gas and dust.

Although it is difficult to know what the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy is because we are inside of it, astronomers have identified it as a typical spiral galaxy containing about 100 billion to 400 billion stars.


Like other spiral galaxies, our galaxy has a disk, a central bulge, and spiral arms. The disk is about 100,000 light-years across and 3,000 light-years thick. Most of the Galaxy’s gas, dust, young stars, and open clusters are in the disk. What data and evidence do astronomers find that lets them know that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy?

  1. The shape of the galaxy as we see it.
  2. The velocities of stars and gas in the galaxy show a rotational motion.
  3. The gases, color, and dust are typical of spiral galaxies.

The central bulge is about 12,000 to 16,000 light-years wide and 6,000 to 10,000 light-years thick. The central bulge contains mostly older stars and globular clusters. Some recent evidence suggests the bulge might not be spherical, but is instead shaped like a bar. The bar might be as long as 27,000 light-years long. The disk and bulge are surrounded by a faint, spherical halo, which also includes old stars and globular clusters. Astronomers have discovered that there is a gigantic black hole at the center of the galaxy.


The Milky Way Galaxy is a significant place. Our solar system, including the Sun, Earth, and all the other planets, is within one of the spiral arms in the disk of the Milky Way Galaxy. Most of the stars we see in the sky are relatively nearby stars that are also in this spiral arm. Earth is about 26,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy, a little more than halfway out from the center of the galaxy to the edge.

Just as Earth orbits the Sun, the Sun and solar system orbit the center of the Galaxy. One orbit of the solar system takes about 225 to 250 million years. The solar system has orbited 20 to 25 times since it formed 4.6 billion years ago. Astronomers have recently found that at the center of the Milky Way, and most other galaxies, is a supermassive black hole, though a black hole cannot be seen.

Banner Image: Sombrero Galaxy (M104) from the Hubble Telescope.