New Hubble Discovery - Spiral Galaxies Like the Milky Way are Bigger Than We Thought

New observations with Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, or COS, show that normal spiral galaxies are surrounded by halos of gas that can extend to over 1 million light-years in diameter. The current estimated diameter of the Milky Way, for example, is about 100,000 light-years. One light-year is roughly 6 trillion miles.

The material for galaxy halos detected by a University of Colorado-Boulder team originally was ejected from galaxies by exploding stars known as supernovae, a product of the star formation process, said John Stocke of CU-Boulder’s astrophysical and planetary sciences department. “This gas is stored and then recycled through an extended galaxy halo, falling back onto the galaxies to reinvigorate a new generation of star formation,” he said. “In many ways this is the ‘missing link’ in galaxy evolution that we need to understand in detail in order to have a complete picture of the process.”

Stocke gave a presentation on the research June 27 at the University of Edinburgh’s Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics in Scotland at a conference titled “Intergalactic Interactions.” The CU-Boulder research team also included professors Michael Shull and James Green and research associates Brian Keeney, Charles Danforth, David Syphers and Cynthia Froning, as well asUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Blair Savage.

Building on earlier studies identifying oxygen-rich gas clouds around spiral galaxies by scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, Stocke and his colleagues determined that such clouds contain almost as much mass as all the stars in their respective galaxies. “This was a big surprise,” said Stocke. “The new findings have significant consequences for how spiral galaxies change over time.”

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