A spiral arm orbiting a central mass should be dispersed quite quickly as the outer elements would move more slowly than the inner ones. The Milky Way, is about 59 Galactic Years old, which, one would have thought, would be enough rotations to disperse a spiral structure entirely.

Is there, then, something keeping the spiral arms in existence, and if so what could it be? Or are the spiral galaxies monstrous co-incidences?

  • $\begingroup$ According to wikipedia, the galaxy is about 59 galactic years old. $\endgroup$
    – seanmonstar
    Jun 8, 2011 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @seanmonstar I always though GY meant giga-year, or 1 billion years. $\endgroup$ Jul 12, 2011 at 6:08
  • $\begingroup$ @seanmonstar, you are quite right; I've edited accordingly. Thank you. $\endgroup$ Jul 12, 2011 at 7:29

2 Answers 2


The material (gas and stars) in the outer part of a galaxy move with roughly the same velocity as the inner part (for example, see this paper), which means that the inner portions do indeed have a faster angular speed; this is sometimes referred to as the "winding problem."

One important feature of spiral arms is that they are bright more because they have lots of young stars than because they have extra material. Young populations of stars include bright, short-lived, blue stars, which die off over time, leaving the fainter, redder populations. Populations of these young stars are particularly apparent in images like this one. Because of this population of bright, young stars, the density of matter in spiral arms compared to the non-arm disk is not as great as their brightness would suggest.

The usual explanation for spiral arms is that they are the result of density waves rather than moving structures. See this paper for a short review.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. Another way to look at those density waves is in terms of traffic congestion. When you drive long distances across country, you'll inevitably run into clumps of slow moving cars. By the time you get close to the front of the clump, you may be boiling mad at the person at the front you think is responsible for the slow-down. You shouldn't be. Oftentimes, no one present is responsible. That congestion is a standing wave, started perhaps hours ago. The congestion remains for a long time after the cause goes away. The spiral arms are the gravitational equivalent of those traffic jams. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2014 at 0:51

Because of "Dark Matter", and it's everywhere! Astronomers have found that supermassive black holes could live in the heart of galaxies and pull stars at incredible speeds, but it's not strong enough to hold all the stars in the gigantic galaxies together.

So, to your question of what does hold them together:

A Swiss astronomer named Fritz Zwicky wondered why galaxies stay together in groups; he concluded that there must be something going undetected and coined it to be "Dark Matter." To prove it scientists would build virtual galaxies using computers, simulating stars, gravity and so forth - astronomers were looking forward to such experiments yielding the integrated galaxy similar to our own. But, what they found was disintegration!

The gravity of the galaxy is not enough to hold it together, so scientists added virtual gravity from virtual dark matter to the simulation experiment, and it solved the problem: gravity from dark matter held galaxies together. So, we can say that "Dark Matter is The "Master Of The Universe".

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your input; I have formatted your post to make it a little more clear, but I think it could still do with some linked references to help solidify your point and provide the community with some further reading. $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2011 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ -1; This answer does not answer the original question. The question is how spiral arms can exist, not what holds the galaxy bound. $\endgroup$
    – Thriveth
    Jun 9, 2013 at 12:51

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