Galaxy Spectra
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Galaxy Spectra

When you look at the spectrum of a galaxy, you are really looking at the combination of spectra from the millions of stars in the galaxy. So studying the features of a galaxy spectrum tells you about the types of stars the galaxy contains, and the relative abundances of each type of star.

Courtesy of
The Hubble Heritage Project

Galaxy spectra also clearly show you whether a galaxy contains star-forming regions called HII regions. HII is a spectral emission line that corresponds to ionized hydrogen - a hydrogen atom that has lost its electron. HII regions are areas of a galaxy where hydrogen nuclei and electrons are recombining to form neutral hydrogen.

When an electron recombines with a hydrogen nucleus, it loses energy and gives off a photon (you might recognize this as the opposite of what happens in absorption lines from the Spectral Types project). The HII spectral line is in the red part of the spectrum, so HII regions in galaxies have a beautiful red or pink tint in visible photographs (NOTE: SDSS uses the red filter for the green picture in a tri-color image. Therefore, HII regions do no appear red in SDSS images). You can clearly see HII regions in the photograph of M51 at the right.

Now, let's examine several galaxies both visually and spectroscopically.

Exercise 7: Below is a table of galaxies. Look up each galaxy using the Object Explorer. When you click on a galaxy's Object ID, the Object Explorer for this galaxy will open in a new window.

Examine the picture of the galaxy and classify it on the Hubble Tuning fork. Then scroll down and click on the galaxy's spectrum. Study its spectrum - pay close attention to its pattern of spectral lines. As you examine the galaxies, think about how to answer questions 7 through 10.

Object ID




211.020 0.999


171.078 0.644


184.849 0.562


24.482 1.001


28.795 0.349

Question 7: What is the color of each galaxy? Color can be measured by u-r, with lower values being blue and higher values being red.

Question 8: What type of galaxy is each?

Question 9: What strong emission or absorption lines do you see in each galaxy?

Question 10: Do you notice a relationship between color, emission/absorption lines, and galaxy type?

Galaxies do change as they age. Older galaxies have few young blue stars. Younger galaxies have lots of HII regions where stars are forming.