Spiral galaxy

An example of a spiral galaxy, the Pinwheel Galaxy (also known as Messier 101 or NGC 5457)

Spiral galaxies form a class of galaxy originally described by Edwin Hubble in his 1936 work The Realm of the Nebulae[1] and, as such, form part of the Hubble sequence. Most spiral galaxies consist of a flat, rotating disk containing stars, gas and dust, and a central concentration of stars known as the bulge. These are often surrounded by a much fainter halo of stars, many of which reside in globular clusters.

Spiral galaxies are named by their spiral structures that extend from the center into the galactic disc. The spiral arms are sites of ongoing star formation and are brighter than the surrounding disc because of the young, hot OB stars that inhabit them.

Roughly two-thirds of all spirals are observed to have an additional component in the form of a bar-like structure,[2] extending from the central bulge, at the ends of which the spiral arms begin. The proportion of barred spirals relative to their barless cousins has likely changed over the history of the Universe, with only about 10% containing bars about 8 billion years ago, to roughly a quarter 2.5 billion years ago, until present, where over two-thirds of the galaxies in the visible universe (Hubble volume) have bars.[3]

The Milky Way is a barred spiral, although the bar itself is difficult to observe from Earth's current position within the galactic disc.[4] The most convincing evidence for the stars forming a bar in the galactic center comes from several recent surveys, including the Spitzer Space Telescope.[5]

Together with irregular galaxies, spiral galaxies make up approximately 60% of galaxies in today's universe.[6] They are mostly found in low-density regions and are rare in the centers of galaxy clusters.[7]


Spiral galaxies may consist of several distinct components:

The relative importance, in terms of mass, brightness and size, of the different components varies from galaxy to galaxy.

Spiral arms

NGC 1300 in infrared light.

Spiral arms are regions of stars that extend from the center of spiral and barred spiral galaxies. These long, thin regions resemble a spiral and thus give spiral galaxies their name. Naturally, different classifications of spiral galaxies have distinct arm-structures. Sc and SBc galaxies, for instance, have very "loose" arms, whereas Sa and SBa galaxies have tightly wrapped arms (with reference to the Hubble sequence). Either way, spiral arms contain many young, blue stars (due to the high mass density and the high rate of star formation), which make the arms so bright.


A bulge is a large, tightly packed group of stars. The term refers to the central group of stars found in most spiral galaxies, often defined as the excess of stellar light above the inward extrapolation of the outer (exponential) disk light.

Using the Hubble classification, the bulge of Sa galaxies is usually composed of Population II stars, which are old, red stars with low metal content. Further, the bulge of Sa and SBa galaxies tends to be large. In contrast, the bulges of Sc and SBc galaxies are much smaller[8] and are composed of young, blue Population I stars. Some bulges have similar properties to those of elliptical galaxies (scaled down to lower mass and luminosity); others simply appear as higher density centers of disks, with properties similar to disk galaxies.

Many bulges are thought to host a supermassive black hole at their centers. In our own galaxy, for instance, the object called Sagittarius A* is believed to be a supermassive black hole. There are many lines of evidence for the existence of black holes in spiral galaxy centers, including the presence of active nuclei in some spiral galaxies, and dynamical measurements that find large compact central masses in galaxies such as NGC 4258.


Bar-shaped elongations of stars are observed in roughly two-thirds of all spiral galaxies.[9][10] Their presence may be either strong or weak. In edge-on spiral (and lenticular) galaxies, the presence of the bar can sometimes be discerned by the out-of-plane X-shaped or (peanut shell)-shaped structures[11][12] which typically have a maximum visibility at half the length of the in-plane bar.


Spiral galaxy NGC 1345

The bulk of the stars in a spiral galaxy are located either close to a single plane (the galactic plane) in more or less conventional circular orbits around the center of the galaxy (the Galactic Center), or in a spheroidal galactic bulge around the galactic core.

However, some stars inhabit a spheroidal halo or galactic spheroid, a type of galactic halo. The orbital behaviour of these stars is disputed, but they may exhibit retrograde and/or highly inclined orbits, or not move in regular orbits at all. Halo stars may be acquired from small galaxies which fall into and merge with the spiral galaxy—for example, the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy is in the process of merging with the Milky Way and observations show that some stars in the halo of the Milky Way have been acquired from it.

NGC 428 is a barred spiral galaxy, located approximately 48 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Cetus.[13]

Unlike the galactic disc, the halo seems to be free of dust, and in further contrast, stars in the galactic halo are of Population II, much older and with much lower metallicity than their Population I cousins in the galactic disc (but similar to those in the galactic bulge). The galactic halo also contains many globular clusters.

The motion of halo stars does bring them through the disc on occasion, and a number of small red dwarfs close to the Sun are thought to belong to the galactic halo, for example Kapteyn's Star and Groombridge 1830. Due to their irregular movement around the center of the galaxy, these stars often display unusually high proper motion.

Oldest spiral galaxy

The oldest spiral galaxy on file is BX442. At eleven billion years old, it is more than two billion years older than any previous discovery. Researchers think the galaxy's shape is caused by the gravitational influence of a companion dwarf galaxy. Computer models based on that assumption indicate that BX442's spiral structure will last about 100 million years.[14][15]


In June 2019, citizen scientists through Galaxy Zoo reported that the usual Hubble classification, particularly concerning spiral galaxies, may not be supported, and may need updating.[16][17]

Other Languages
العربية: مجرة حلزونية
asturianu: Galaxa espiral
Bân-lâm-gú: Kńg-lê gîn-hô
Deutsch: Spiralgalaxie
español: Galaxia espiral
Esperanto: Spirala galaksio
français: Galaxie spirale
한국어: 나선은하
Bahasa Indonesia: Galaksi spiral
Lëtzebuergesch: Spiralgalaxis
مازِرونی: مرپیچی کهکشون
Bahasa Melayu: Galaksi pilin
日本語: 渦巻銀河
norsk nynorsk: Spiralgalakse
português: Galáxia espiral
Simple English: Spiral galaxy
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Spiralna galaksija
svenska: Spiralgalax
Türkçe: Sarmal galaksi
Tiếng Việt: Thiên hà xoắn ốc
中文: 螺旋星系