Galaxy groups and clusters are the largest known gravitationally bound objects to have arisen thus far in the process of cosmic structure formation. They form the densest part of the large scale structure of the universe. In models for the gravitational formation of structure with cold dark matter, the smallest structures collapse first and eventually build the largest structures, clusters of galaxies. Clusters are then formed relatively recently between 10 billion years ago and now. Groups and clusters may contain from ten to thousands of galaxies. The clusters themselves are often associated with larger, non-gravitationally bound, groups called superclusters.
Groups of galaxies
Groups of galaxies are the smallest aggregates of galaxies. They typically contain no fewer than 50 galaxies in a diameter of 1 to 2 megaparsecs (Mpc) (see 1022 m for distance comparisons). Their mass is approximately 1013 solar masses. The spread of velocities for the individual galaxies is about 150 km/s. However, this definition should be used as a guide only, as larger and more massive galaxy systems are sometimes classified as galaxy groups.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is contained in the Local Group of galaxies, which contains more than 40 galaxies.
Clusters of galaxies
Clusters are larger than groups, although there is no sharp dividing line between the two. When observed visually, clusters appear to be collections of galaxies held together by mutual gravitational attraction. However, their velocities are too large for them to remain gravitationally bound by their mutual attractions, implying the presence of either an additional invisible mass component, or an additional attractive force besides gravity. X-ray studies have revealed the presence of large amounts of intergalactic gas known as the intracluster medium. This gas is very hot, between 107K and 108K, and hence emits X-rays in the form of bremsstrahlung and atomic line emission. The total mass of the gas is greater than that of the galaxies by roughly a factor of two. However this is still not enough mass to keep the galaxies in the cluster. Since this gas is in approximate hydrostatic equilibrium with the overall cluster gravitational field, the total mass distribution can be determined. It turns out the total mass deduced from this measurement is approximately six times larger than the mass of the galaxies or the hot gas. The missing component is known as dark matter and its nature is unknown. In a typical cluster perhaps only 5% of the total mass is in the form of galaxies, maybe 10% in the form of hot X-ray emitting gas and the remainder is dark matter. Brownstein and Moffat use a theory of modified gravity to explain X-ray cluster masses without dark matter. Observations of the Bullet Cluster, however, are considered to be some of the strongest evidence for the existence of dark matter.
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