Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
Object Type: Galaxy
Scope: APO 80mm
Exposure 135 minutes
The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation Andromeda. It is also known as Messier 31, M31, or NGC 224, and is often referred to as the Great Andromeda Nebula in older texts.
Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, but not the closest galaxy overall. As it is visible from Earth as a faint smudge on a moonless night, it is the farthest object visible to the naked eye, and can be seen even from urban areas with binoculars. It gets its name from the area of the sky in which it appears, the Andromeda constellation, which was named after the mythological princess Andromeda. Andromeda is the largest galaxy of the Local Group, which consists of the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Triangulum Galaxy, and about 30 other smaller galaxies. Although the largest, Andromeda may not be the most massive, as recent findings suggest that the Milky Way contains more dark matter and may be the most massive in the grouping. The 2006 observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that M31 contains one trillion (1012) stars, more than the number of stars in our own galaxy, which is estimated to be c. 200-400 billion.
While the 2006 estimates put the mass of the Milky Way to be ~80% of the mass of Andromeda, which is estimated to be 7.1 × 1011 solar masses, a 2009 study concluded that Andromeda and the Milky Way are about equal in mass. The Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way are expected to collide in perhaps 4.5 billion years
At an apparent magnitude of 3.4, the Andromeda Galaxy is notable for being one of the brightest Messier objects, making it easily visible to the naked eye even when viewed from areas with moderate light pollution. Although it appears more than six times as wide as the full Moon when photographed through a larger telescope, only the brighter central region is visible to the naked eye or when viewed using a binoculars or a small telescope.
In 1920, the Great Debate between Harlow Shapley and Curtis took place, concerning the nature of the Milky Way, spiral nebulae, and the dimensions of the universe. To support his claim that the Great Andromeda Nebula (M31) was an external galaxy, Curtis also noted the appearance of dark lanes resembling the dust clouds in our own Galaxy, as well as the significant Doppler shift. In 1922 Ernst Öpik presented a very elegant and simple astrophysical method to estimate the distance of M31. His result put the Andromeda Nebula far outside our Galaxy at a distance of about 450 kpc (kilo parsec), which is about 1,500 kly (kilo lightyears). Edwin Hubble settled the debate in 1925 when he identified extragalactic Cepheid variable stars for the first time on astronomical photos of M31. These were made using the 2.5 metres (98 in) Hooker telescope, and they enabled the distance of Great Andromeda Nebula to be determined. His measurement demonstrated conclusively that this feature was not a cluster of stars and gas within our Galaxy, but an entirely separate galaxy located a significant distance from our own.
The Andromeda Galaxy is approaching the Milky Way at about 100 to 140 kilometres per second (62 to 87 mi/s), so it is one of the few blue-shifted galaxies. The Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way are thus expected to collide in perhaps 4.5 billion years, although the details are uncertain.
Andromeda's tangential velocity with respect to the Milky Way is only known to within about a factor of two. A likely outcome of the collision is that the galaxies will merge to form a giant elliptical galaxy. Such events are frequent among the galaxies in galaxy groups. The fate of the Earth and the Solar System in the event of a collision are currently unknown. If the galaxies do not merge, there is a small chance that the Solar System could be ejected from the Milky Way or join Andromeda.