A galaxy is a gravitationally bound system of stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and dark matter.
What are galaxies?
The word galaxy is derived from the Greek galaxias, literally “milky”, a reference to the Milky Way. Galaxies range in size from dwarfs with just a few hundred million (108) stars to giants with one hundred trillion (1014) stars, each orbiting its galaxy’s center of mass.
Galaxies are categorized according to their visual morphology as elliptical, spiral, or irregular. Many galaxies are thought to have black holes at their active centers. The Milky Way’s central black hole, known as Sagittarius A*, has a mass four million times greater than the Sun. As of March 2016, GN-z11 is the oldest and most distant observed galaxy with a comoving distance of 32 billion light-years from Earth, and observed as it existed just 400 million years after the Big Bang.
Recent estimates of the number of galaxies in the observable universe range from 200 billion (2×1011) to 2 trillion (2×1012) or more, containing more stars than all the grains of sand on planet Earth. Most of the galaxies are 1,000 to 100,000 parsecs in diameter and separated by distances on the order of millions of parsecs (or megaparsecs).
The space between galaxies is filled with a tenuous gas having an average density of less than one atom per cubic meter. The majority of galaxies are gravitationally organized into groups, clusters, and superclusters. At the largest scale, these associations are generally arranged into sheets and filaments surrounded by immense voids. The largest structure of galaxies yet recognised is a cluster of superclusters, that has been named Laniakea.
Current cosmological models of the early Universe are based on the Big Bang theory. About 300,000 years after this event, atoms of hydrogen and helium began to form, in an event called recombination. Nearly all the hydrogen was neutral (non-ionized) and readily absorbed light, and no stars had yet formed. As a result, this period has been called the “dark ages”. It was from density fluctuations (or anisotropic irregularities) in this primordial matter that larger structures began to appear. As a result, masses of baryonic matter started to condense within cold dark matter halos. These primordial structures would eventually become the galaxies we see today.