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Classification Scheme

The true nature of the galaxies was first convincingly demonstrated by Edwin Hubble when he showed that they are far outside the Milky Way. On the basis of photographic images Hubble suggested there are three major categories of galaxies. An example of each is shown below.

elliptical (E)
spiral (S)
irregular (I)
Messier 87
Messier 51
Small Magellanic Cloud
Small Magellanic Cloud

Hubble expanded this preliminary classification system into what has now become known as the "tuning fork" diagram.

Hubble Tuning Fork

Hubble Tuning Fork Diagram, Courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute.


In this picture the ellipticals are distributed along the "handle" of the tuning fork, with decreasing ellipticity to the left. The spirals are distributed along two sequences. The splitting was necessary because of the presence of two apparently similar sequences of spirals. One contains the "normal" spirals, in which the spiral arms appear to come from a central galactic bulge. On the other, the "barred" spirals have spiral arms that appear to come from the ends of a linear bar-like structure that passes through the bulge.

The spirals can be placed in a sequence along which the arms become more open and the bulge becomes less prominent. This is indicated by the designations Sa through Sc (and SBa to SBc for barred spirals). Hubble thought this ordering might have been an evolutionary sequence, with objects evolving from tightly wound to a more open state. Thus, the Sa galaxies are still referred to as "early" galaxies while the Sc galaxies are referred to as "late" galaxies.


Galaxy Evolution and the Tuning Fork Diagram

Hubble expected there should be an S0 class which formed an evolutionary bridge between the ellipticals and the spirals. Though he never detected such an object, the S0's were added later by Hubble's student, Allan Sandage. Sandage greatly expanded Hubble's original system. Additional enhancements were also suggested by Gerard de Vaucouleurs, who added the class Sd as a class later than the Sc's. An Sd galaxy has extremely open arms and a negligible or even non-existent nucleus.

We now know that the tuning fork diagram bears no relation to the evolution of galaxies, at least, not in the sense that galaxies evolve from "early" to "late" as envisioned by Hubble. However, we do see collisions in which two spirals can merge to form an elliptical, counter to the evolutionary development assumed by Hubble. This is only one way to form an elliptical though, and many galaxies likely form as ellipticals from the very start. Also, in the early universe we see that large ellipticals and spirals seem to be forming from small irregular galaxies; there is even strong evidence that this process continues to the modern day.

NGC2787 Lenticular Galaxy
NGC 2787, a lenticular galaxy
Image: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
Spirals like the Milky Way and Andromeda have cannibalized small galaxies in the past, and they continue to do so (see the image of M51 at the top of this page). The Milky Way is currently in the process of devouring the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of its small companion galaxies. The well-known "globular cluster" Omega Centauri seems in fact to be the remnant nucleus of a small elliptical galaxy that has been consumed by the Milky Way. Furthermore, in several billion years observational evidence suggests that the Milky Way and Andromeda will collide and merge, eventually settling down to form a large elliptical galaxy. The image at right shows two galaxies engaged in a similar encounter.

Evidence now suggests that the process of galaxy evolution is one of titanic mergers and cannibalism, in striking contrast to the slow migration envisioned by Edwin Hubble early in the Twentieth Century. So even though his tuning fork diagram is not at all related to the evolution of galaxies, the classification scheme originated by Hubble is still a useful way to describe the current appearance of a galaxy, if not where it came from or where it might be headed.

Colliding Galaxies
Image: Hubble Heritage Site, NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

Galaxy Spectra

Galaxies are studied mostly through the light they emit. When astronomers study an object, they often spread its light out into the constituent wavelengths or energies that the light contains. For visible light these are seen as different colors. The light is often displayed on a graph, with brightness plotted against wavelength. The brightness can also be plotted against energy or frequency... these are all basically equivalent. Such a plot is called a spectrum. Studying the spectra of astronomical objects is how many astronomers spend their time. This is because understanding an object’s spectrum is the key to knowing many things about it. Below we discuss some general features of galaxy spectra.

In addition to morphology, as described above, the spectra of galaxies can also be used as an aid in classifying them. The spectrum of a galaxy is produced mostly by the stars it contains, and so galaxies generally show the same spectral lines commonly seen in stars. Of course, the lines are broadened due to the galaxy’s rotation since, at any given moment, some stars are moving toward us, while others are moving away. These motions shift the position of the lines according to the Doppler shift formula. So one thing we can measure from the spectrum of a galaxy is the speed at which its stars move within it (which in turn allows us to measure its mass). But we can learn many other things about a galaxy from its spectrum. In particular, the presence of strong emission lines in a galaxy’s spectrum is a sign of star formation.

The spectra below at right are both taken from Parisi et al., 2009 (arXiv:09095345v1). Each is a plot of flux (in erg per square centimeter per second per angstrom) vs wavelength, here plotted in Ansgstrom units (1 angstrom is 0.1 nanometers, or 10-10 meters). To break this down, the plots show how much energy (in ergs) from the galaxy passes through each square centimeter of the detector during each second at each wavelength plotted (in angstroms). For reference, the bluest light visible to humans has a wavelength just short of 4000 angstroms, and the reddest light visible is around 7000 angstroms. So this spectrum runs from violet to just beyond the red part of the spectrum in the near infrared. Of course, the electromagnetic spectrum continues to shorter wavelengths (ultraviolet) and longer (infrared), but our eyes cannot see this radiation. Our detectors can, but those wavelengths have not been measured for these spectra.

You should keep in mind that these galaxies are at great distances, so their spectra have both been redshifted by the expansion of the universe. As a result, the lines shown are not at the wavelengths they would have in the lab. Despite these shifts, the patterns of the lines are the same as they would be in a nearby galaxy; the redshift effect only shifts the pattern. Redshift acts on each wavelength the same, shifting it by the same percentage as all other wavelengths.

This first spectrum is from a spiral galaxy. Notice the strong emission lines of oxygen (near 5000 angstrom) and hydrogen (just short of 7000 angstrom). Other emission lines are seen as well. Those from sulphur (S), nitrogen (N) and helium (He) are labeled. These lines are produced by hot, ionized gas clouds which are often seen in regions where stars are forming. As a result, the presence of these emission lines in a galaxy means it is forming stars. Only spirals and some irregular galaxies form stars, so just from looking at this spectrum you can tell that the galaxy is not an elliptical. The Roman numerals after the chemical symbols indicate the ionization state of that atom. OI refers to neutral oxygen, OII is singly ionized oxygen (loss of one electron) and OIII is doubly ionized oxygen (loss of two electrons). The presence of the helium emission lines indicate that this is no ordinary spiral galaxy. In fact, it harbors an AGN, and is therefore an active galaxy. This is also indicated by the broadening of the lines of hydrogen (especially H-alpha), nitrogen and sulphur.

In addition to the emission lines, several different absorption lines are seen in this galaxy. The absorption lines will be discussed below in the description of the elliptical galaxy spectrum. You can click on these images to view a larger version if you wish.

J0519.5-3140 Galaxy
This is the spectrum of a spiral galaxy. Click on image for a larger version.
Image: Parisi et al., arXiv:0909.5345v1, 2009

This spectrum is from an elliptical galaxy. Notice the lack of most of the emission lines seen in the spiral galaxy, above. The only emission line seen is OII, which in this galaxy has been shifted to almost 5000 angstroms (it has a rest wavelength of 3727 angstroms). Like the example above, this is an active galaxy. If it were a normal elliptical there would be no emission lines at all. From the previous discussion of spirals you will deduce that the lack of emission lines in elliptical galaxies results from them having no star formation, and thus no ionized gas clouds. However, this last statement is somewhat misleading.

Elliptical galaxies do contain ionized gas, but it is at temperatures higher than a million kelvin. At these temperatures the gas is so hot and highly ionized that it emits x-rays. We do not see any sign of this hot gas in the optical spectra shown. The gas in spirals, on the other hand, has a range of temperatures from only a few kelvin in the cores of molecular clouds, to about ten thousand kelvin in the ionized clouds responsible for the emission lines.

You may notice that the absorption lines in this elliptical galaxy seem much more pronounced than the ones seen in the spiral spectrum. This is not really the case. The presence of the strong emission lines in the spiral spectrum makes the vertical scale somewhat compressed. The continuum (the continuum is the average value of the spectrum, ignoring emission and absorption lines) appears flatter in the spiral, and the lines seem to be not as deep as in the elliptical. In some spiral galaxies the emission lines are so strong that the continuum appears completely flat, but this is just an artifact of how we have chosen to plot the graph, with a linear vertical scale. If we blew up the vertical scale we would see that the continuum in both galaxies is about the same, with the same rough shape and similar absorption features. In both galaxies the continuum is produced by cool giant stars for the most part. So, aside from the emission lines from the star forming regions in the spirals, their spectra are similar to the spectra of ellipticals.

J0519.5-3140 Galaxy
This is the spectrum of an elliptical galaxy. Click on image for a larger version.
Image: Parisi et al., arXiv:0909.5345v1, 2009
You might have wondered about the absorption features in each of these spectra marked by the circle with a cross-hair through it. Notice that these features occur at the same wavelength in both plots, despite the different redshifts of the galaxies. That is because these features are not related to the galaxies, they are caused by absorption from oxygen and water in the Earth’s atmosphere. The little circle with the cross through it is the symbol for Earth.

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This page was last modified on Friday 02nd October 2009 @ 16:01pm

Science Mission Directorate Universe Division

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