Faint star clusters, clouds of glowing gas, and galaxies all appeared as faint patches of light (or nebulae) in the telescopes available at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was only when Hubble measured the distance to the Andromeda galaxy using cepheid variables with the giant 2.5-meter reflector on Mount Wilson in 1924 that the existence of other galaxies similar to the Milky Way in size and content was established.
The majority of bright galaxies are either spirals or ellipticals. Spiral galaxies contain both old and young stars, as well as interstellar matter, and have typical masses in the range of 109 to 1012 MSun. Our own Galaxy is a large spiral. Ellipticals are spheroidal or slightly elongated systems that consist almost entirely of old stars, with very little interstellar matter. Elliptical galaxies range in size from giants, more massive than any spiral, down to dwarfs, with masses of only about 106 MSun. Dwarf ellipticals are probably the most common type of galaxy in the nearby universe. A small percentage of galaxies with more disorganized shapes are classified as irregulars. Galaxies may change their appearance over time due to collisions with other galaxies or by a change in the rate of star formation.
The masses of spiral galaxies are determined from measurements of their rates of rotation. The masses of elliptical galaxies are estimated from analyses of the motions of the stars within them. Galaxies can be characterized by their mass-to-light ratios. The luminous parts of galaxies with active star formation typically have mass-to-light ratios in the range of 1 to 10; the luminous parts of elliptical galaxies, which contain only old stars, typically have mass-to-light ratios of 10 to 20. The mass-to-light ratios of whole galaxies, including their outer regions, are as high as 100, indicating the presence of a great deal of dark matter.
Astronomers determine the distances to galaxies using a variety of methods, including the period-luminosity relationship for cepheid variables; objects such as type Ia supernovae, which appear to be standard bulbs; and the Tully-Fisher relation, which connects the line broadening of 21-cm radiation to the luminosity of spiral galaxies. Each method has limitations in terms of its precision, the kinds of galaxies with which it can be used, and the range of distances over which it can be applied.
The universe is expanding. Observations show that the spectral lines of distant galaxies are redshifted, and that their recession velocities are proportional to their distances from us, a relationship known as Hubble’s law. The rate of recession, called the Hubble constant, is approximately 22 kilometers per second per million light-years. We are not at the center of this expansion: an observer in any other galaxy would see the same pattern of expansion that we do. The expansion described by Hubble’s law is best understood as a stretching of space.