A composite image of the Messier 81 (M81) galaxy shows what astronomers call a "grand design" spiral galaxy, where each of its arms curls all the way down into its center. Located about 12 million light-years away in the Ursa Major constellation, M81 is among the brightest of the galaxies visible by telescope from Earth.
Some galaxies are similar to the Milky Way, but some are quite different.
The deeper we look into the cosmos, the more galaxies we see. One 2016 study estimated that the observable universe contains two trillion—or two million million—galaxies. Some of those distant systems are similar to our own Milky Way galaxy, while others are quite different.
Before the 20th century, we didn't know that galaxies other than the Milky Way existed; earlier astronomers had classified them as as “nebulae,” since they looked like fuzzy clouds. But in the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that the Andromeda “nebula” was a galaxy in its own right. Since it is so far from us, it takes light from Andromeda more than 2.5 million years to bridge the gap. Despite the immense distance, Andromeda is the