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 surrounded by a much fainter halo of stars, many of which reside in globular clusters. Spiral galaxies make up approximately 60% of galaxies in the local Universe. They are mostly found in low-density regions and are rare in the centers of galaxy clusters.

Spiral galaxies are named for the spiral structures that extend from the center into the disk. The spiral arms are sites of ongoing star formation and are brighter than the surrounding disk because of the hot, massive stars that inhabit them. Spiral arms contain a great many young, blue stars, which make the arms so remarkable. Roughly half of all spirals are observed to have an additional component in the form of a bar-like structure, extending from the central bulge, at the ends of which the spiral arms begin.

Our own Milky Way has recently been confirmed to be a barred spiral, although the bar itself is difficult to observe from our position within the Galactic disk. The most convincing evidence for its existence comes from a recent survey, performed by the Spitzer Space Telescope, of stars in the Galactic center.

Bertil Lindblad proposed that the arms represent regions of enhanced density waves that rotate more slowly than the galaxy’s stars and gas. As gas enters a density wave, it gets squeezed and makes new stars, some of which are short-lived blue stars that light the arms.

This idea was developed into density wave theory by C. C. Lin and Frank Shu in 1964. They suggested that the spiral arms were manifestations of spiral density waves, attempting to explain the large-scale structure of spirals in terms of a small-amplitude wave propagating with fixed angular velocity, that revolves around the galaxy at a speed different from that of the galaxy’s gas and stars.


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