A Detailed Scan of the Milky Way Finds Possible “Fossil” Spiral Arms

Looking deep into the Universe, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope catches a passing glimpse of the numerous arm-like structures that sweep around this barred spiral galaxy, known as NGC 2608. Appearing as a slightly stretched, smaller version of our Milky Way, the peppered blue and red spiral arms are anchored together by the prominent horizontal central bar of the galaxy. In Hubble photos, bright Milky Way stars will sometimes appear as pinpoints of light with prominent lens flares. A star with these features is seen in the lower right corner of the image, and another can be spotted just above the pale centre of the galaxy. The majority of the fainter points around NGC 2608, however, lack these features, and upon closer inspection they are revealed to be thousands of distant galaxies. NGC 2608 is just one among an uncountable number of kindred structures. Similar expanses of galaxies can be observed in other Hubble images such as the Hubble Deep Field which recorded over 3000 galaxies in one field of view.

As we learn more about the cosmos, it’s interesting how some of the greatest discoveries continue to happen close to home. This is expected to continue well into the future, where observations of Cosmic Dawn and distant galaxies will take place alongside surveys of the outer Solar System and our galaxy. In this latter respect, the ESA’s Gaia observatory will continue to play a vital role. As an astrometry mission, Gaia has been to determine the proper position and radial velocity of over a billion stars to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way.

Using data from Gaia’s third early Data Release (eDR3) and Legacy Survey data – from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) – an international team of astronomers created a new map of the Milky Way’s outer disk. In the process, they discovered evidence of structures in this region that include the remnants of fossil spiral arms. This discovery will shed new light on the formation and history of the Milky Way and may lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of galactic evolution.

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Where is Earth in the Milky Way?

Artist's impression of The Milky Way Galaxy. Based on current estimates and exoplanet data, it is believed that there could be tens of billions of habitable planets out there. Credit: NASA

For thousand of years, astronomers and astrologers believed that the Earth was at the center of our Universe. This perception was due in part to the fact that Earth-based observations were complicated by the fact that the Earth is embedded in the Solar System. It was only after many centuries of continued observation and calculations that we discovered that the Earth (and all other bodies in the Solar System) actually orbits the Sun.

Much the same is true about our Solar System’s position within the Milky Way. In truth, we’ve only been aware of the fact that we are part of a much larger disk of stars that orbits a common center for about a century. And given that we are embedded within it, it has been historically difficult to ascertain our exact position. But thanks to ongoing efforts, astronomers now know where our Sun resides in the galaxy.

Size of the Milky Way:

For starters, the Milky Way is really, really big! Not only does it measure some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter and about 1,000 light-years thick, but up to 400 billion stars are located within it (though some estimates think there are even more). Since one light year is about 9.5 x 1012 km (9.5 trillion km) long, the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy is about 9.5 x 1017 to 11.4 x 1017 km, or 9,500 to 11,400 quadrillion km.

It became its current size and shape by eating up other galaxies, and is still doing so today. In fact, the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way because its stars are currently being added to the Milky Way’s disk. And our galaxy has consumed others in its long history, such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy.

And yet, our galaxy is only a middle-weight when compared to other galaxies in the local Universe. Andromeda, the closest major galaxy to our own, is about twice as large as our own. It measures 220,000 light years in diameter, and has an estimated 400-800 billion stars within it.

Structure of the Milky Way:

If you could travel outside the galaxy and look down on it from above, you’d see that the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy. For the longest time, the Milky Way was thought to have 4 spiral arms, but newer surveys have determined that it actually seems to just have two spiral arms, called Scutum–Centaurus and Carina–Sagittarius.

The spiral arms are formed from density waves that orbit around the Milky Way – i.e. stars and clouds of gas clustered together. As these density waves move through an area, they compress the gas and dust, leading to a period of active star formation for the region. However, the existence of these arms has been determined from observing parts of the Milky Way – as well as other galaxies in our universe.

The Milky Way's basic structure is believed to involve two main spiral arms emanating from opposite ends of an elongated central bar. But only parts of the arms can be seen - gray segments indicate portions not yet detected. Other known spiral arm segments--including the Sun's own spur--are omitted for clarity. Credit: T. Dame
The Milky Way’s basic structure is believed to involve two main spiral arms emanating from opposite ends of an elongated central bar. Credit: T. Dame

In truth, all the pictures that depict our galaxy are either artist’s renditions or pictures of other spiral galaxies, and not the result of direct observation of the whole. Until recently, it was very difficult for scientists to gauge what the Milky Way really looks like, mainly because we’re inside it. It has only been through decades of observation, reconstruction and comparison to other galaxies that they have been to get a clear picture of what the Milky Way looks like from the outside.

From ongoing surveys of the night sky with ground-based telescopes, and more recent missions involving space telescopes, astronomers now estimate that there are between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. They also think that each star has at least one planet, which means there are likely to be hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way – billions of which are believed to be the size and mass of the Earth.

As noted, much of the Milky Way’s arms is made up of dust and gas. This matter makes up a whopping 10-15% of all the “luminous matter” (i.e. that which is visible) in our galaxy, with the remainder being the stars. Our galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across, and we can only see about 6,000 light years into the disk in the visible spectrum.

Still, when light pollution is not significant, the dusty ring of the Milky Way can be discerned in the night sky. What’s more, infrared astronomy and viewing the Universe in other, non-visible wavelengths has allowed astronomers to be able to see more of it.

The Milky Way, like all galaxies, is also surrounded by a vast halo of dark matter, which accounts for some 90% of its mass. Nobody knows precisely what dark matter is, but its mass has been inferred by observations of how fast the galaxy rotates and other general behaviors. More importantly, it is believed that this mass helps keep the galaxy from tearing itself apart as it rotates.

The Solar System:

The Solar System (and Earth) is located about 25,000 light-years to the galactic center and 25,000 light-years away from the rim. So basically, if you were to think of the Milky Way as a big record, we would be the spot that’s roughly halfway between the center and the edge.

Astronomers have agreed that the Milky Way probably has two major spiral arms – Perseus arm and the Scutum-Centaurus arm – with several smaller arms and spurs. The Solar System is located in a region in between the two arms called the Orion-Cygnus arm. This arm measures 3,500 light-years across and is 10,000 light-years in length, where it breaks off from the Sagittarius Arm.

our location in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way galaxy. image credit: Roberto Mura/Public Domain
The location of our Solar Systemin the Orion Spur of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Roberto Mura/Public Domain

The fact that the Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies near the galactic plane. The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness due to the gases and dust that fills the galactic disk. That prevents us from seeing the bright galactic center or from observing clearly what is on the other side of it.

You might be surprised to learn that it takes the Sun 250 million years to complete one rotation around the Milky Way – this is what is known as a “Galactic Year” or “Cosmic Year”. The last time the Solar System was in this position in the Milky Way, there were still dinosaurs on Earth. The next time, who knows? Humanity might be extinct, or it might have evolved into something else entirely.

As you can see, the Milky Way alone is a very big place. And discerning our location within it has been no simple task. And as our knowledge of the Universe has expanded, we’ve come to learn two things. Not only is the Universe much larger than we could have ever imagined, but our place within in continues to shrink! Our Solar System, it seems, is both insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but also extremely precious!

We have written many articles about the Milky Way for Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts about the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, What is the Closest Galaxy to the Milky Way?, and How Many Stars Are There in the Milky Way?

If you’d like more info on the Milky Way, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Milky Way. Listen here, Episode 99: The Milky Way.

A New Spin on Galactic Evolution

Spiral galaxy arms may carry stars along with them, suggests new study


There’s a new concept in the works regarding the evolution of galactic arms and how they move across the structure of spiral galaxies. Robert Grand, a postgraduate student at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, used new computer modeling to suggest that these signature features of spiral galaxies – including our own Milky Way – evolve in different ways than previously thought.

The currently accepted theory is as spiral galaxies rotate, the “arms” are actually transient structures that move across the flattened disc of stars surrounding the galactic bulge, yet don’t directly affect the movement of the individual stars themselves. This would work in much the same way as a “wave” goes across a crowd at a stadium event. The wave moves, but the individual people do not move along with it – rather, they stay seated after it has passed.

However when Grand researched this suggested motion using computer models of galaxies, he and his colleagues found that this was not what tended to happen. Instead the stars actually moved along with the arms, rather than maintaining their positions.

Also it was observed in these models that the arms themselves are not permanent features, but rather break up and reform over the course of 80 to 100 million years. Grand suggests that this may be due to the powerful gravitational shear forces generated by the spinning of the galaxy.

“We simulated the evolution of spiral arms for a galaxy with five million stars over a period of 6 billion years. We found that stars are able to migrate much more efficiently than anyone previously thought. The stars are trapped and move along the arm by their gravitational influence, but we think that eventually the arm breaks up due to the shear forces.”

– Robert Grand

Snapshots of face-on view of a simulated disc galaxy.

The computer models also showed that the stars along the leading edge of the arms tended to move inwards toward the galactic center while the stars lining the trailing ends were carried to the outer edge of the galaxy.

Since it takes hundreds of millions of years for a spiral galaxy to complete even just one single rotation, observing their evolution and morphology is impossible to do in real time. Researchers like Grand and his simulations are key to our eventual understanding of how these islands of stars formed and continue to shape themselves into the vast, varied structures we see today.

“This research has many potential implications for future observational astronomy, like the European Space Agency’s next corner stone mission, Gaia, which MSSL is also heavily involved in.  As well as helping us understand the evolution of our own galaxy, it may have applications for regions of star formation.”

– Robert Grand

The results were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Wales on April 20. Read the press release on the Royal Astronomical Society’s website here.

Top image: M81, a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, is one of the brightest galaxies that can be seen from Earth. The spiral arms wind all the way down into the nucleus and are made up of young, bluish, hot stars formed in the past few million years, while the central bulge contains older, redder stars. Credit: NASAESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)