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Galaxies

You look at a map to find out where you are. A map


can tell you what city you are in and what street you
are on. But do you know where you are in the
universe? For hundreds of years, astronomers—
scientists who study things in space—have been
trying to figure out where our solar system is in the
universe. They have learned that our Sun is part of a
huge group of stars called a galaxy. Our galaxy is
called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is just one of
billions of galaxies.

WHAT ARE GALAXIES MADE OF?


A galaxy is made up of millions or billions of stars. Big
clouds of gas and dust swirl in space between the stars.

Astronomers believe that most galaxies have an enormous


black hole in their centers. A black hole is an object with
lots of matter packed into it. A black hole has a powerful
pull of gravity. Gravity is the force that holds you to the
ground and pulls a ball back down after you throw it up in
the air. The gravity of a black hole is so strong that it
sucks in and crushes anything that comes near. Not even
light can escape from a black hole.

WHAT DO GALAXIES LOOK LIKE?


Galaxies come in different shapes. Some galaxies look like
giant whirlpools or pinwheels. They have long arms made
of gas and dust clouds and stars. These are called spiral
galaxies because the arms spiral into the center. The Milky
Way is a spiral galaxy.
The stars and clouds of gas and dust in a spiral galaxy
move slowly in a circle. They orbit, or go around, the
center of the galaxy. New stars form in the clouds of a
spiral galaxy.

Some galaxies are oval or round in shape. These are


called elliptical galaxies. Elliptical galaxies tend to have
older stars. Few new stars form in elliptical galaxies.

Some galaxies do not have any particular shape. These


are called irregular galaxies.

When galaxies come close to each other, their shapes can


change. Sometimes galaxies collide with one another.
Irregular galaxies may be galaxies whose original shapes
were distorted by collisions.

HOW DO WE LEARN ABOUT GALAXIES?


Galaxies give off different kinds of light. Astronomers
study the light to learn about the galaxies.

Galaxies give off rays of light our eyes can see. They also
give off radio waves. Galaxies give off heat, or infrared
rays, too. They also give off X rays and gamma rays. Even
though our eyes can’t see them, radio waves, infrared
rays, X rays, and gamma rays are all types of light.
Astronomers have instruments that can detect each of
these types. The different types of light provide clues
about what galaxies are made of and how they form.

Astronomers figure out how far away a galaxy is by


studying the light that comes from it. They have found
galaxies that are very far out in the universe. The Hubble
Space Telescope took pictures of galaxies that are 13
billion light-years away from Earth. A light-year is how far
light travels in one year. Light travels fast—about 6 trillion
miles (about 10 trillion kilometers) a year. Six trillion is a
6 with twelve zeroes after it: 6,000,000,000,000! These
most distant galaxies are so far away that it took their
light 13 billion years to reach Earth.

Astronomers looking through powerful telescopes have


also found that galaxies clump together. They form big
groups called clusters. The clusters also tend to be
clumped. They form even bigger groups called
superclusters. Our Milky Way is part of a cluster of about
30 galaxies called the Local Group. The Local Group is part
of a supercluster called the Local Supercluster. Long
strands of superclusters wind through the universe. These
strands look something like a jumbled spiderweb, with
galaxies strung along the threads and vast voids of empty
space between the threads.
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