Some sixteen decades ago, Lord Rosse was the first to point out spiral structure in distant “nebula”… and today astrophysicists Thomas Dame and Patrick Thaddeus are discovering it closer to home. Our Milky Way Galaxy was believed to only have six spiral arms, but their research has revealed an outer extension of the Scutum-Centaurus arm from the inner galaxy.
“We have identified a spiral arm lying beyond the Outer Arm in the first Galactic quadrant ~15 kpc from the Galactic center.” says Dame and Thaddeus. “One of the detections was fully mapped to reveal a large molecular cloud with a radius of 47 pc and a molecular mass of ~50,000 M. At a mean distance of 21 kpc, the molecular gas in this arm is the most distant yet detected in the Milky Way. The new arm appears to be the continuation of the Scutum–Centaurus Arm in the outer Galaxy, as a symmetric counterpart of the nearby Perseus Arm.”
Over the last 50 years, many models of our galaxy have been proposed – revealing a pleasing, duo-symmetry. However, finding evidence to prove these theories has been a bit more elusive. Since we cannot observe ourselves, seeing spiral structure on the far side of the galaxy is problematic – hidden by near-side emission at the same velocity. But these researchers didn’t stop. The new arm was found as a result of attempts to follow the Sct–Cen Arm past its tangent.
“The new arm was largely overlooked in existing 21 cm surveys probably because it lies mainly out of the Galactic plane, its Galactic latitude steadily increasing with longitude as it follows the warp in the distant outer Galaxy.” says Dame. “In the first quadrant the only prominent HI spiral feature in the outer Galaxy is the well-known Outer Arm, a feature also well traced by CO. However, at 3 degrees above the plane one sees instead the new arm as a prominent linear feature running roughly parallel to the locus of the Outer Arm but shifted to more negative velocities.”
Is our smoothly constructed galaxy indeed a mirror image of itself? This new evidence suggests the Scutum-Centaurus arm embraces the entire Milky Way – forming a symmetrical, star-forming counterpart to the galaxy’s other arm, Perseus. “Confirmation of the present feature as the ”Outer Sct-Cen Arm” will require a great deal of new data from several telescopes and much observing time over an extended period.” says Thaddeus. “Key steps toward confirming the proposal include, as mentioned, tracking Sct–Cen in the fourth quadrant and, even harder, tracking the Perseus Arm from the point where it passes inside the solar circle near longitude 50 degrees to its putative origin at the far end of the bar.”
Mapping the findings of galactic data on atomic hydrogen gas isn’t going to happen overnight… and even more discoveries and clarifications could be revealed in the future. “The Galactic symmetry suggested by the present work and clearly demonstrated by the identification of the Far 3-kpc Arm a few years ago, coupled with evidence for a global two-armed spiral pattern in the old stars, and, indeed, with the discovery of the bar itself, all hint at Galactic spiral structure that is both simpler and more amenable to study than had long been assumed. As emphasized here, much work remains, but aided by greatly improved distances from forthcoming astrometric surveys, a reasonably complete picture of our Galaxy’s spiral pattern may be achieved over the next decade.”