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Runaway Universe

Andromeda Galaxy Andromeda Galaxy

Galaxy Messier 33 Galaxy Messier 33

Large Magellanic Cloud Large Magellanic Cloud

Galaxies, Clusters, and Superclusters
back to Tour the Universe

Galaxies are the building blocks of the universe. Clusters of galaxies, and clusters of clusters of galaxies, called superclusters, make up the structures in the geography of the universe. In this section, we'll explore these structures and take a look at our address on these scales.

Galaxies are titanic swarms of tens of millions to trillions of stars. Between the stars, there can be vast interstellar clouds of gas and dust. Spiral galaxies have a thin, pancake-shaped disk, with a spherical bulge at the center. Within the disk, the brightest stars trace out the characteristic spiral pattern. Elliptical galaxies are shaped roughly like watermelons, some round and some elongated. Large galaxies are approximately 100 thousand light-years across (a light-year is the distance light travels in one year: about six trillion miles). In rather plain fashion, the smallest galaxies are called dwarfs while the largest are called giants.

Our Milky Way Galaxy is one of three large galaxies in the Local Group of Galaxies. The other large galaxies are the Andromeda Galaxy, and Messier 33 (the 33rd entry in Charles Messier's catalog of fuzzy things in the sky). Also in the Local Group are a couple dozen dwarf galaxies. Several of these dwarf galaxies are satellite galaxies, orbiting around the large galaxies. The Milky Way has two prominent satellite galaxies, called the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. (The Magellanic Clouds are visible on Earth only from the southern hemisphere; their existence was recorded by the voyage of Magellan).

The Local Group is a small clustering of galaxies, a few million light-years across. Larger clusters of galaxies can contain hundreds of galaxies. Galaxies within a cluster are generally considered to be bound together by their mutual gravitational pulls. They each orbit around their common center of mass. Because the density of galaxies is high within clusters, galaxy collisions occur. One such collision can be seen in the lower right of the image of the Virgo cluster below.

Galaxies at the center of the Virgo Cluster Galaxies at the center of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies

The largest nearby cluster of galaxies is the Virgo Cluster, named after the constellation in which we see it. The Virgo Cluster contains about a thousand galaxies, and spans about ten million light-years. Several giant elliptical galaxies inhabit the central regions of the Virgo Cluster. These giants are believed to have formed through the merging of other galaxies. The density of large galaxies in the Virgo Cluster is about ten times greater than that in the Local Group.

The enormous gravity of the Virgo Cluster makes it the center of a larger structure, called the Local Supercluster. This collection of nearly 100 clusters, and thousands of galaxies, stretches across a hundred million light-years. The Local Group is just a tiny member of the Virgo Supercluster, located on the outskirts. Just as we have found that Earth is not the center of the solar system, and the Sun is just another star in the Milky Way, so too have we found that our galaxy holds no special place in the universe.

Hubble deep field Galaxies observed in the Hubble Deep Field image
The image above is from the Hubble Deep Field, a special observation made with the Hubble Space Telescope. With this image we can see farther into the universe and uncover more galaxies than perhaps any other observation ever made. From the hundreds of galaxies we can see in this very small patch of sky, we can estimate that there are about 50 billion galaxies in the universe.

The 3-D model below will show you the structure of about 1,800 nearby galaxies. Our data sets
have good 3-D positions for about 35,000 galaxies. Large galaxy surveys are attempting to measure millions of galaxies and map their distribution in space. We are only beginning to learn and explore the geography of the universe. Let's get going.

    Galaxies, Clusters, and Superclusters
    How is the Universe structured? Find out here.

The Local Universe in 3-D: A VRML Tour
    Preparing Yourself and Your Computer for VRML
    Where to get the VRML plugin, system requirements,
    and how to navigate through a 3-D VRML world.

    The Local Universe in 3-D (VRML; 151Kbytes)
    Jump right into the tour if your computer already has
    a VRML plugin installed.

Non-VRML Version
    Zoom-Out Map of the Local Universe
    Travel millions of light years away from Earth in this
    simple graphic and text version of the tour.

Photos: (1-4) AURA/NOAO/NSF; (5) NASA/STScI.

History of the Universe | Birth of a Supernova | Tour the Universe
Moving Targets | How Big is the Universe? | Spin a Spiral Galaxy
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