According to Simulations, the Milky Way is One in a Million

A lonely Milky Way analogue galaxy, too massive for its wall. The background image shows the distribution of dark matter (green and blue) and galaxies (here seen as tiny yellow dots) in a thin slice of the cubic volume in which we expect to find one of such rare massive galaxies. Credit Images: Miguel A. Aragon-Calvo. Simulation data: Illustris TNG project Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Humanity is in a back-and-forth relationship with nature. First, we thought we were at the center of everything, with the Sun and the entire cosmos rotating around our little planet. We eventually realized that wasn’t true. Over the centuries, we’ve found that though Earth and life might be rare, our Sun is pretty normal, our Solar System is relatively non-descript, and even our galaxy is one of the billions of spiral galaxies, a type that makes up 60% of the galaxies in the Universe.

But the Illustris TNG simulation shows that the Milky Way is special.

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Astronomers use the World's Biggest Radio Telescope to map new Features of the Milky Way

Artist impression of a fast radio burst. Credit: Danielle Futselaar

Despite everything astronomers have learned about the nature and structure of galaxies, there are still mysteries about the Milky Way. The reason for this is simple: since we are embedded in the Milky Way’s disk, we have difficulty mapping it and observing it as a whole. It’s also very challenging to observe the center of the galaxy, what lies beyond it, and features in the disk itself because of all the gas and dust between stars- the Interstellar Medium (ISM). However, by observing the Milky Way in the non-visible spectrum (radio, x-ray, gamma-ray, etc.), astronomers can see more of what’s out there.

There’s also the spectral line that corresponds to the emission frequency (1420 MHz) of cold neutral hydrogen gas (HI), which makes up the majority of the ISM. Using the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) – the most powerful radio telescope in the world near Guizhou, China – a team of scientists located more than 500 new faint pulsars. During the survey, the team simultaneously recorded the spectral line data with high spectral and spatial resolution, making it an extremely valuable resource for studying the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy and the life cycle of its stars.

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A new 3D map of the Milky Way Uses close to 66,000 Stars and Reveals New Details About the Shape of our Galaxy

The warping of the Milky Way disk. Credit: University of Warsaw

In the 17th century, Galileo Galilee aimed his telescope at the stars and demonstrated (for the first time) that the Milky Way was not a nebulous band but a collection of distant stars. This led to the discovery that our Sun was merely one of the countless stars in a much larger structure: the Milky Way Galaxy. By the 18th century, William Herschel became the first astronomer to create a map that attempted to capture the shape of the Milky Way. Even after all that time and discovery, astronomers are still plagued by the problem of perspective.

While we have been able to characterize galaxies we see across the cosmos with relative ease, it is difficult for astronomers to study the size, shape, and population of the Milky Way because of how our Solar System is embedded in its disk. Luckily, there are methods to circumvent this problem of perspective, which have provided astronomers with clues to these questions. In a recent paper, a team from the Astronomical Observatory at the University of Warsaw (AstroUW) used a large collection of Mira variable stars to trace the shape of the Milky Way, which yielded some interesting results!

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Maybe We Don’t See Aliens Because Nobody Wants to Come Here

Artist impression of an alien civilization. Image credit: CfA

The Fermi Paradox won’t go away. It’s one of our most compelling thought experiments, and generations of scientists keep wrestling with it. The paradox pits high estimates for the number of civilizations in the galaxy against the fact that we don’t see any of those civs. It says that if rapidly expanding civilizations exist in the Milky Way, one should have arrived here in our Solar System. The fact that none have implies that none exist.

Many thinkers and scientists have addressed the Fermi Paradox and tried to come up with a reason why we don’t see any evidence of an expanding technological civilization. Life may be extraordinarily rare, and the obstacles to interstellar travel may be too challenging. It could be that simple.

But a new paper has a new answer: maybe our Solar System doesn’t offer what long-lived, rapidly expanding civilizations desire: the correct type of star.

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A New Image From Webb Shows Galaxy NGC 1365, Known to Have an Actively Feeding Supermassive Black Hole

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Judy Schmidt

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to deliver stunning images of the Universe, demonstrating that the years of development and delays were well worth the wait! The latest comes from Judy Schmidt (aka. Geckzilla, SpaceGeck), an astrophotographer who processed an image taken by Webb of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365. Also known as the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, NGC 1365 is a double-barred spiral galaxy consisting of a long bar and a smaller barred structure located about 56 million light-years away in the southern constellation Fornax.

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Part of the Milky Way Is Much Older Than Previously Believed

Basic structure of our home galaxy, edge-on view. The new results from ESA's Gaia mission provide for a reconstruction of the history of the Milky Way, in particular of the evolution of the so-called thick disc. Image Credit: Stefan Payne-Wardenaar / MPIA

The Milky Way is older than astronomers thought, or part of it is. A newly-published study shows that part of the disk is two billion years older than we thought. The region, called the thick disk, started forming only 0.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

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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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A Black Hole has been Found Lurking Just Outside the Milky Way

This artist’s impression shows a compact black hole 11 times as massive as the Sun and the five-solar-mass star orbiting it. The two objects are located in NGC 1850, a cluster of thousands of stars roughly 160 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a Milky Way neighbour. The distortion of the star’s shape is due to the strong gravitational force exerted by the black hole.  Not only does the black hole’s gravitational force distort the shape of the star, but it also influences its orbit. By looking at these subtle orbital effects, a team of astronomers were able to infer the presence of the black hole, making it the first small black hole outside of our galaxy to be found this way. For this discovery, the team used the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers have found a smaller, stellar-mass black hole lurking in a nearby satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way.  The black hole has been hiding in a star cluster named NGC 1850, which is one of the brightest star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The black hole is 160,000 light-years away from Earth, and is estimated to be about 11 times the mass of our Sun.

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The Milky Way Broke one of its Arms

A contingent of stars and star-forming clouds was found jutting out from the Milky Way's Sagittarius Arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Milky Way galaxy is our home, and yet in some ways, it is the least understood galaxy. One of the biggest challenges astronomers have is in understanding its large-scale structure. Because we’re in the midst of it all, mapping our galaxy is a bit like trying to map the size and shape of a wooded park while standing in the middle of it.

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There Should be a few Supernovae in the Milky Way Every Century, but we’ve Only Seen 5 in the Last 1000 Years. Why?

This image of the supernova remnant SN 1987A was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in January 2017 using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Since its launch in 1990 Hubble has observed the expanding dust cloud of SN 1987A several times has helped astronomers get a better understanding of these cosmic explosions. Supernova 1987A is located in the centre of the image amidst a backdrop of stars. The bright ring around the central region of the exploded star is material ejected by the star about 20 000 years before the actual explosion took place. The supernova is surrounded by gaseous clouds. The clouds’ red colour represents the glow of hydrogen gas. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
This image of the supernova remnant SN 1987A was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in January 2017 using its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Since its launch in 1990 Hubble has observed the expanding dust cloud of SN 1987A several times has helped astronomers get a better understanding of these cosmic explosions. Supernova 1987A is located in the centre of the image amidst a backdrop of stars. The bright ring around the central region of the exploded star is material ejected by the star about 20 000 years before the actual explosion took place. The supernova is surrounded by gaseous clouds. The clouds’ red colour represents the glow of hydrogen gas. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

Our galaxy hosts supernovae explosions a few times every century, and yet it’s been hundreds of years since the last observable one. New research explains why: it’s a combination of dust, distance, and dumb luck.

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