Where did today’s spiral galaxies come from?

By | February 9, 2010

Hubble shows that the beautiful spirals galaxies of the modern Universe were the ugly ducklings of six billion years ago.

If confirmed, the finding highlights the importance to many galaxies of collisions and mergers in the recent past. It also provides clues for the unique status of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have created a census of galaxy types and shapes from a time before Earth and the Sun existed, up to the present day. The results show that, contrary to contemporary thought, more than half of the present-day spiral galaxies had peculiar shapes as recently as 6 billion years ago.

The study of the shapes and formation of galaxies, known as morphology, is a critical and much-debated topic in astronomy. An important tool for this is the ‘Hubble sequence’ or the ‘Hubble tuning-fork diagram’, a classification scheme invented in 1926 by the same Edwin Hubble in whose honour the space telescope is named.

Hubble’s scheme divides regular galaxies into three broad classes — ellipticals, lenticulars and spirals — based on their visual appearance. A fourth class contains galaxies with an irregular appearance.

A team of European astronomers led by François Hammer of the Observatoire de Paris has, for the first time, completed a census of galaxy types at two different points in the Universe’s history — in effect, creating two Hubble sequences — that help explain how galaxies form. In this survey, researchers sampled 116 local galaxies and 148 distant galaxies.

The astronomers show that the Hubble sequence six billion years ago was very different from the one that astronomers see today. “Six billion years ago, there were many more peculiar galaxies than now – a very surprising result,” says Rodney Delgado-Serrano, lead author of the related paper recently published in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “This means that in the last six billion years, these peculiar galaxies must have become normal spirals, giving us a more dramatic picture of the recent Universe than we had before.” …

via ESA – Space Science – Where did today’s spiral galaxies come from?.

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