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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

6 - Elliptical galaxies


Elliptical galaxies look like simple objects; but they are not. As their name implies, they appear round on the sky; the light is smoothly distributed, and they lack the bright clumps of young blue stars and patches of obscuring dust which are such obvious features of spiral galaxies. Ellipticals are almost devoid of cool gas, except at the very center; in contrast to S0 systems, they have no prominent disk. Their smooth appearance suggests that, like the molecules of air in a room, their stars have had time to reach a well-mixed equilibrium state. As with stars on the main sequence, we would expect the properties of elliptical galaxies to reflect the most probable state of a fairly simple system, with 'no surprises'.

Instead, detailed studies reveal a bewildering complexity. Elliptical galaxies cover a huge range of luminosity and of light concentration. Some ellipticals rotate fast, others hardly at all. Some appear to be oblate (grapefruit shaped), while others have a triaxial shape with three unequal axes, like a squashed (American or rugby) football. These properties are interlinked: luminous ellipticals are more likely to be triaxial, slowly rotating, and also strong X-ray sources, while the less luminous systems are oblate and relatively rapidly rotating, and have dense stellar cusps at their centers.

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