How come there are bars in some galaxies? Or is this an illusion? asks George W. Bowman.
Actually, there are bars at the center of most spiral-shaped galaxies. But you won’t find any drunken Wookies or neon Budweiser signs, only vast sweeps of dust and stars.
Galaxies are enormous, turning cities of stars. There may be a hundred billion galaxies in the universe, separated by vast stretches of mostly empty space. Galaxies come in several basic shapes; the most common are a simple elliptical or a spiral, like a pinwheel.
Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is a collection of at least 100 billion stars (one of them the Sun), arrayed in a rotating spiral. As Earth and its siblings planets orbit the Sun, the Sun traces an almost circular orbit around the galactic center. Traveling along a spiral arm at about 490,000 mph, it takes the Sun some 220 million years to circle once around the Milky Way’s core. (The last time the Sun was near its current position, dinosaurs roamed North America.)
Such distance are measured in light-years, the distance light can travel in a vacuum in one year (about 6 trillion miles). Luckily, our solar system cruises through the galaxy’s outskirts, about 26,000 light-years from the core — where lurks a massive black hole.
At least two-thirds of all spiral galaxies have bar-shapes running through their centers, created by dust and millions of stars in very peculiar orbits. Instead of traveling in near-circles, the stars are orbiting the galactic center in long, bar-shaped loops.
But it wasn’t always so. Since light from distant galaxies can take billions of years to reach Earth, looking out into space is looking back into time. And scientists say that the spiral galaxies of 7 billion years ago were much less likely to have bars. Since the universe is about 13 billion years old, it seems like bars may be the signature of a mature spiral–a grown-up galaxy in the prime of its life.
How do bars form? The enormous gravitational pull of the galaxy’s center keeps stars in orbit. Computer models show that over time, as orbits are disturbed by stars’ gravitational attraction to other passing stars, circular orbits can become more elongated. As orbits stretch out, stars travel toward and then away from the galactic center. Gradually, over many millions of years, enough stars are locked into long, narrow orbits to form a visible bar across the galaxy.
But bars aren’t just a scenic galactic feature. The orbiting stars’ gravity pulls more gas, the raw material for new stars, into the inner galaxy. This may explain the ring of glowing gas around the center of many galaxies, studded with newborn suns.
On the less-cheery side, the oldest stars in a bar tend to follow the most elongated paths, carrying them closest to the galaxy’s center. In our Milky Way, such bar-crawling old stars may fall into our galaxy’s black hole, disappearing with a burst of x-rays.