What is a Elliptical Galaxy

General characteristics

Elliptical galaxies are characterized by several properties that make them distinct from other classes of galaxy. They are spherical or ovoid masses of stars, starved of star-making gases. The smallest known elliptical galaxy is about one-tenth the size of the Milky Way. The motion of stars in elliptical galaxies is predominantly radial, unlike the disks of spiral galaxies, which are dominated by rotation. Furthermore, there is very little interstellar matter (neither gas nor dust), which results in low rates of star formation, few open star clusters, and few young stars; rather elliptical galaxies are dominated by old stellar populations, giving them red colors. Large elliptical galaxies typically have an extensive system of globular clusters.

The dynamical properties of elliptical galaxies and the bulges of disk galaxies are similar, suggesting that they may be formed by the same physical processes, although this remains controversial. The luminosity profiles of both elliptical galaxies and bulges are well fit by Sersic’s law, and a range of scaling relations between the elliptical galaxies’ structural parameters unify the population.

Every massive elliptical galaxy contains a supermassive black hole at its center. Observations of 46 elliptical galaxies, 20 classical bulges, and 22 pseudobulges show that each contain a black hole at the center. The mass of the black hole is tightly correlated with the mass of the galaxy, evidenced through correlations such as the M–sigma relation which relates the velocity dispersion of the surrounding stars to the mass of the black hole at the center.

Elliptical galaxies are preferentially found in galaxy clusters and in compact groups of galaxies.

Unlike flat spiral galaxies with organization and structure, elliptical galaxies are more three-dimensional, without much structure, and their stars are in somewhat random orbits around the center.


NGC 3597 is the product of a collision between two galaxies. It is evolving into a giant elliptical galaxy.

It is widely accepted that the merging of smaller galaxies due to gravitational attraction plays a major role in shaping the growth and evolution of elliptical galaxies. Such major galactic mergers are thought to have been more common at early times. Minor galactic mergers involve two galaxies of very different masses, and are not limited to giant ellipticals. The Milky Way galaxy, depending upon an unknown tangential component, is on a four- to five-billion-year collision course with the Andromeda Galaxy. It has been theorized that an elliptical galaxy will result from a merger of the two spirals.

It is believed that black holes may play an important role in limiting the growth of elliptical galaxies in the early universe by inhibiting star formation.

Star formation

The traditional portrait of elliptical galaxies paints them as galaxies where star formation finished after an initial burst at high-redshift, leaving them to shine with only their aging stars. Elliptical galaxies typically appear yellow-red, which is in contrast to the distinct blue tinge of most spiral galaxies. In spirals, this blue color emanates largely from the young, hot stars in their spiral arms. Very little star formation is thought to occur in elliptical galaxies, because of their lack of gas compared to spiral or irregular galaxies. However, in recent years, evidence has shown that a reasonable proportion (~25%) of early-type (E, ES and S0) galaxies have residual gas reservoirs and low level star-formation.

Herschel Space Observatory researchers have speculated that the central black holes in elliptical galaxies keep the gas from cooling enough for star formation.

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