This image from Gemini North in Hawaii shows two spiral galaxies on the verge of merging and clashing - NGC 4568 (bottom) and NGC 4567 (top). It will take around 500 million years for the galaxies to merge into a single elliptical galaxy. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA.

Guess What? Galaxies Breathe Gas

An invisible dance of gas shapes the birth, life, and death of galaxies.


While the twinkling stars have captured our attention for eons, the unseen gas is what truly breathes life into galaxies. The profound relationship between gas and galaxies dictates the very fate of star formation. Dive into the enigmatic world of galactic breathing and its consequences.

For much of astronomy’s history, we focused on stars and galaxies, largely overlooking the more elusive gas that envelops them. This gas serves as the universe’s lifeline, setting the stage for star creation.


Gas exists everywhere. In vast spaces between galaxies, it’s termed the ‘intergalactic medium’ (IGM). Closer to a galaxy’s perimeter, it’s known as ‘circumgalactic gas’ (CGM). While these designations provide clarity for astronomers, the gas itself seamlessly transitions between these regions.

The Breathing of Galaxies

Understanding how gas moves between galaxies, the CGM, and the IGM is critical. This dynamic process, akin to a galaxy’s respiration, is pivotal to star formation. When this gaseous exchange ceases, so does the galaxy’s ability to birth new stars.

As the universe came alive, gas coalesced into galaxies, birthing stars. Stars, upon reaching their life’s end, especially in explosive supernovae, thrust gas outward. This expelled gas, initially hot and diffuse, cools over time. As it cools, the galaxy’s gravitational pull brings it back, facilitating the formation of new stars. This cyclical movement has been likened to the breathing of a galaxy.


As explained by the Universe Today, only in the 1960s did astronomers recognize this phenomenon. Enhanced tools and advanced observations have since deepened our comprehension.

The Role of CGM in Recycling

Though the CGM occupies a smaller and fainter region than the IGM, its significance in recycling is paramount. The CGM serves as both a reservoir for star-forming fuel and a site of galactic feedback. Interestingly, varying metal content in the CGM has shed light on its connection with star expulsion and gas re-entry.

Comprehensive surveys reveal that the CGM’s gas is denser and varies more in temperature than the IGM. However, observing the exact mechanics remains a challenge. While incoming gas signals often blend with those of the galaxy, outgoing gas is more discernible.

The precise reasons for these outflows remain under debate. Stellar phenomena like supernovae, potent stellar winds, and even black hole activity might contribute.

Eventually, this breathing halts, leading to “quenching.” When quenched, galaxies become “quiescent,” ceasing star formation. Yet, the mystery deepens, with some quenched galaxies possessing ample star-forming fuel but lacking the ability to use it.


Simulating Galactic Breathing

To bridge observational gaps, astronomers employ simulations like FIRE: Feedback In Realistic Environments. Such simulations vividly depict the cyclical movement of gas in galaxies, offering insights into their formation and evolution.

The cessation of star formation has larger implications. No new stars mean no new planets, and potentially, no new life. The universe, too, has a lifespan. In the distant future, our Stelliferous Era, characterized by the formation of stars and galaxies, will conclude. The universe will descend into darkness, with remnants like white dwarfs and black holes marking the end of an epoch.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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