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Our Galaxy - the Milky Way

All the stars that we see from the Earth are part of our galaxy. This is an enormous spiral shaped disc shaped like two giant plates held face to face with a diameter of a little over 100 000 light years and made up of some hundred thousand million (1011) stars as well as great clouds of gas.

(See: The Milky Way)

Our Solar System lies about two thirds out from the centre on one of the spiral arms of the galaxy. The galaxy is rotating very slowly one complete rotation taking about 240 million years! As the galaxy spins the Sun moves with it at about 235 km/s.

Viewed from 'outside' our galaxy would look similar to the one shown in Figure 1.


There are many other galaxies far out in deep space. They are so far away that it is difficult to understand just how far away they are. It has been estimated that the Universe contains over a billion (1000 million) galaxies! Some are spirals like ours but others are elliptical and some irregular in shape. Each one of these contains around 100 000 million stars.

Galaxies are huge things. Our supersonic jet flying at twice the speed of sound would take 25,000 million years to fly from one side to the other. Even light takes 100,000 years to make the trip across our galaxy. This means that the light that we see from the stars on the other side of the galaxy started out on its journey over eighty thousand years ago!

If we could shrink the whole solar system out to the orbit of Pluto to the size of a grain of sand 1mm across then on the same scale our galaxy would be a disc with a diameter of some 80 m and the nearest galaxy would be about 1500 m away.

Each galaxy contains thousands of millions of stars but they are so far away that it takes a powerful telescope to see them clearly as individual points of light. Light from the Andromeda galaxy, a member of our local group of galaxies and quite 'close' to us takes over two million years to reach us. The picture (Figure 2) shows a galaxy seen through the stars in Ursa Major (The Plough). This is called M81 and we are seeing it now due to light that started out from it 11 million years ago!

A man who left the Earth in a rocket would not live long enough to get any where near another star let alone make a trip across the vastness of space to another galaxy. Travelling at 40 000 km/hr it would take a spaceship over 100 000 years to reach even the nearest star and 50 000 million years to reach even the Andromeda galaxy a 'close' neighbour in space.

Stars are held in a galaxy by the gravitational forces. This is the same type of force that pulls us down to the surface of the Earth and which gives us weight.

Black Holes - whirlpools in space

Astronomers think that they have found some strange objects out in space. They have called them BLACK HOLES. They are formed from the collapse of a large star.

You can think of a Black Hole as a sort of invisible whirlpool that sucks in everything around it - I mean everything, even light.

Once you have been sucked into a Black Hole you can NEVER get out again. It's all to do with ESCAPE VELOCITY. This is the speed that you have to have to escape from something.

If you jump in the air on the Earth you fall back to the ground again. This is because of the gravity of the Earth. However if you jump up very fast - 40000 km/hour (25000 miles/hour) then you will never come down. You have reached the ESCAPE VELOCITY of the Earth

Now the pull of gravity of a Black Hole is so huge that its escape velocity is as big as the speed of light. That's why it's black - light that goes in can't get out.

If a spaceship got pulled into a Black Hole it would be trapped there for ever.

Black Holes may be as big as a star or even larger so one day somebody may run into one. If they do we will never see them again. Up to now nobody has seen one so we can't be absolutely certain that they do exist. However the effects of Black Holes on light from distant galaxies has been observed

The life of the Universe

A long, long time ago there was nothing. No stars, no galaxies, no planets, no life, no space and no time!

Some time in the distant past, astronomers think that this was about 14,000 million years ago, there was an enormous explosion. An enormous amount of energy was released and from this explosion time and space were created.

It was the biggest explosion ever and so it is called the BIG BANG. It was the beginning of the Universe.

Very rapidly some of the energy from this explosion turned into small particles. These particles began to clump together to make large particles that in turn became atoms and then molecules. The Universe had been created.

If we look out into the Universe today we can still see the galaxies flying outwards at great speed.

Astronomers have found a slight warmth in space, a temperature of about 270oC or three degrees above absolute zero. This is the temperature of the cooling Universe after that huge explosion. They call this the echo of the Big Bang. You can actually detect this echo it is about 1% of the hiss you see on your televisions when they are not tuned to any particular channel.

Nobody is sure how the Universe will end, if it ever does. One thing is fairly certain, the Sun will go on shining for at least another eight thousand million years, and who knows what will have happened on Earth before then.

© Keith Gibbs 2020