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The Coma Cluster of Galaxies
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Courtesy of NASA.

Elliptical Galaxies

Elliptical galaxies are generally egg-shaped. If you have the chance to see one through a small telescope, it will probably look just like a fuzzy smudge to you, a piece of lint. But it is really formed of many billions of stars orbitting the center of the galaxy.

Each elliptical galaxy is assigned a number ranging from 0 to 7 which represents how elliptical it is. The most elliptical galaxies are a 7, while a galaxy which appears circular is a 0. Their shape may tell us something about how the galaxies formed and evolved. Elliptical galaxies also come in a range of sizes from giants, which are very massive and bright, to dwarfs, which are small but which may be very numerous. In fact, ellipticals are both the largest and smallest galaxies known!

We think of ellipticals as old because they have not formed any new stars recently, unlike spiral galaxies which are forming new stars even now. They appear not to have very much cool gas or dust from which to form stars.

Elliptical galaxies are the dominant type of galaxy in most clusters and groups of galaxies. In our own Local Group, for example, there are no large ellipticals, but many dwarf ellipticals orbiting both the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA