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Scientists discover 'fluffiest galaxies,' but you can't pet them

The most adorable galaxies in the universe may be a series of far-away space blobs with a lot of room, but very few stars.

dragonfly.jpg
The Dragonfly 44 galaxy isn't fat; it's fluffy. P. van Dokkum, R. Abraham, J. Brodie

There are beautiful galaxies out there in the form of glittering spirals, clusters of shining stars and the epic expanses of Andromeda. One word that rarely gets applied to these space wonders is "cute." That could change with the announcement that W. M. Keck Observatory scientists have identified the "fluffiest galaxies" yet discovered in the universe.

There's no luxurious fur on these galaxies, but they are extremely diffuse, with very few stars within a wide expanse of space compared to the much more densely packed galaxies we typically see in images. The fluffy galaxies are about as wide as the Milky Way, but contain just 1 percent as many stars.

"If the Milky Way is a sea of stars, then these newly discovered galaxies are like wisps of clouds," lead researcher Pieter van Dokkum, of Yale University, said in a statement Thursday.

These newly discovered angora-rabbits-of-space are called Ultra Diffuse Galaxies. They are around 300 million light-years away and were found by sifting through data and observations from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Now that these galaxies have been identified, scientists are focusing on how they formed.

Researcher Aaron Romanowsky, of San Jose State University, says that any creature living in one of those galaxies would see very few stars at night. Compared to them, we have an embarrassment of celestial riches thanks to our location in the busy star-filled Milky Way galaxy.

The scientists earlier this month published their findings in The Astrophysical Journal Letters under the title "Spectroscopic Confirmation of the Existence of Large, Diffuse Galaxies in the Coma Cluster."

Diffuse galaxy comparison
These images compare the packed Andromeda galaxy with an ultra-diffuse galaxy. B. Schoening, V. Harvey/REU Program/NOAO/AURA/NSF, P. van Dokkum/Hubble Space Telescope