What Is the Name Of Our Galaxy?

Since prehistoric times, human beings have looked up at at the night sky and pondered the mystery of the band of light that stretches across the heavens. And while theories have been advanced since the days of Ancient Greece as to what it could be, it was only with the birth of modern astronomy that scholars have come come to know precisely what it is – i.e. countless stars at considerable distances from Earth.

The term “Milky Way”, a term which emerged in Classical Antiquity to describe the band of light in the night sky, has since gone on to become the name for our galaxy. Like many others in the known Universe, the Milky Way is a barred, spiral galaxy that is part of the Local Group – a collection of 54 galaxies. Measuring 100,000 – 180,000 light-years in diameter, the Milky Way consists of between 100 and 400 billion stars.

Structure:

The Milky Way consists of a Galactic Center that is shaped like a bar and a Galactic Disk made up of spiral arms, all of which is surrounded by the Halo – which is made up of old stars and globular clusters. The Center, also known as “the bulge”,  is a dense concentration of mostly old stars that measures about 10,000 light years in radius. This region is also the rotational center of the Milky Way.

Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

The Galactic Center is also home to an intense radio source named Sagittarius A*, which is believed to have a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center. The presence of this black hole has been discerned due to the apparent gravitational influence it has on surrounding stars. Astronomers estimate that it has a mass of between 4.1. and 4.5 million Solar masses.

Outside the barred bulge at the Galactic Center is the Galactic Disk of the Milky Way. This consists of stars, gas and dust which is organized into four spiral arms. These arms typically contain a higher density of interstellar gas and dust than the Galactic average, as well as a greater concentration of star formation. While there is no consensus on the exact structure or extent of these spiral arms, they are commonly grouped into two or four different arms.

In the case of four arms, this is based on the traced paths of gas and younger stars in our galaxy, which corresponds to the Perseus Arm, the Norma and Outer Arm, the Scutum-Centaurum Arm, and the Carina-Sagittarius Arm. There are also at least two smaller arms, which include the Cygnus Arm and the Orion Arm. Meanwhile, surveys based on the presence of older stars show only two major spirals arms – the Perseus arm and the Scutum–Centaurus arm.

Beyond the Galactic Disk is the Halo, which is made up of old stars and globular clusters – 90% of which lie within 100,000 light-years (30,000 parsecs) from the Galactic Center. Recent evidence provided by X-ray observatories indicates that in addition to this stellar halo, the Milky way also has a halo of hot gas that extends for hundreds of thousands of light years.

Artist’s conception of the spiral structure of the Milky Way with two major stellar arms and a bar. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESO/R. Hurt

Size and Mass:

The Galactic Disk of the Milky Way Galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter and about 1,000 light years thick. It is estimated to contain between 100 and 400 billion stars, though the exact figure depends on the number of very low-mass M-type (aka. red dwarf) stars. This is difficult to determine because these stars also have low-luminosity compared to other class.

The distance from the Sun to the Galactic Center is estimated to be between 25,000 to 28,000 light years (7,600 to 8,700 parsecs). The Galactic Center’s bar (aka. its “bulge”)  is thought to be about 27,000 light-years in length and is composed primarily of red stars, all of which are thought to be ancient. The bar is surrounded by the ‘5-kpc ring’, a region that contains much of the galaxy’s molecular hydrogen and where star-formation is most intense.

The Galactic Disk has a diameter of between 70,000 and 100,000 light-years. It does not have a sharp edge, a radius beyond which there are no stars. However, the number of stars drops slowly with distance from the center. Beyond a radius of roughly 40,000 light years, the number of stars drops much faster the farther you get from the center.

Location of the Solar System:

The Solar System is located near the inner rim of the Orion Arm, a minor spiral arm located between the Carina–Sagittarius Arm and the Perseus Arm. This arm measures some 3,500 light-years (1,100 parsecs) across,  approximately 10,000 light-years (3,100 parsecs) in length, and is at a distance of about 25,400 to 27,400 light years (7.78 to 8.4 thousand parsecs) from the Galactic Center.

History of Observation:

Our galaxy was named because of the way the haze it casts in the night sky resembled spilled milk. This name is also quite ancient. It is translation from the Latin “Via Lactea“, which in turn was translated from the Greek for Galaxias, referring to the pale band of light formed by stars in the galactic plane as seen from Earth.

Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) even spelled it out in his book Tadhkira: “The Milky Way, i.e. the Galaxy, is made up of a very large number of small, tightly clustered stars, which, on account of their concentration and smallness, seem to be cloudy patches. Because of this, it was likened to milk in color.”

Astronomers had long suspected the Milky Way was made up of stars, but it wasn’t proven until 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned his rudimentary telescope towards the heavens and resolved individual stars in the band across the sky. With the help of telescopes, astronomers realized that there were many, many more stars in the sky, and that all of the ones that we can see are a part of the Milky Way.

In 1755, Immanuel Kant proposed that the Milky Way was a large collection of stars held together by mutual gravity. Just like the Solar System, this collection would be rotating and flattened out as a disk, with the Solar System embedded within it. Astronomer William Herschel (discoverer of Uranus) tried to map its shape in 1785, but he didn’t realize that large portions of the galaxy are obscured by gas and dust, which hide its true shape.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, when Edwin Hubble provided conclusive evidence that the spiral nebulae in the sky were actually whole other galaxies, that the true shape of our galaxy was known. Thenceforth, astronomers came to understand that the Milky Way is a barred, spiral galaxy, and also came to appreciate how big the Universe truly is.

The Milky Way is appropriately named, being the vast and cloudy mass of stars, dust and gas it is. Like all galaxies, ours is believed to have formed from many smaller galaxies colliding and combining in the past. And in 3 to 4 billion years, it will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy to form an even larger mass of stars, gas and dust. Assuming humanity still exists by then (and survives the process) it should make for some interesting viewing!

We have written many interesting articles about the Milky Way here at Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts About the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, Why is our Galaxy Called the Milky Way?, What is the Closest Galaxy to the Milky Way?, Where is the Earth in the Milky Way?, The Milky Way has Only Two Spiral Arms, and It’s Inevitable: Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy Heading for Collision.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, 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 about the Milky Way. Listen here, Episode 99: The Milky Way.

Sources:

10 Interesting Facts About the Milky Way

Viewed from above, we can now see that our gaze takes across the Perseus Arm (toward the constellation Cygnus), parts of the Sagittarius and Scutum-Centaurus arms (toward the constellations Scutum, Sagittarius and Ophiuchus) and across the central bar. Interstellar dust obscures much of the center of the galaxy. Credit: NASA et. all with additions by the author.

The Milky Way Galaxy is an immense and very interesting place. Not only does it measure some 120,000–180,000 light-years in diameter, it is home to planet Earth, the birthplace of humanity. Our Solar System resides roughly 27,000 light-years away from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust particles called the Orion Arm.

But within these facts about the Milky Way lie some additional tidbits of information, all of which are sure to impress and inspire. Here are ten such facts, listed in no particular order:

1. It’s Warped:

For starters, the Milky Way is a disk about 120,000 light years across with a central bulge that has a diameter of 12,000 light years (see the Guide to Space article for more information). The disk is far from perfectly flat though, as can be seen in the picture below. In fact, it is warped in shape, a fact which astronomers attribute to the our galaxy’s two neighbors -the Large and Small Magellanic clouds.

These two dwarf galaxies — which are part of our “Local Group” of galaxies and may be orbiting the Milky Way — are believed to have been pulling on the dark matter in our galaxy like in a game of galactic tug-of-war. The tugging creates a sort of oscillating frequency that pulls on the galaxy’s hydrogen gas, of which the Milky Way has lots of (for more information, check out How the Milky Way got its Warp).

The Spiral Galaxy ESO 510-13 is warped similar to our own. Credit: NASA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA), C. Conselice (U. Wisconsin / STScI/ NASA
The warp of Spiral Galaxy ESO 510-13 is similar to that of our own. Credit: NASA/Hubble

2. It Has a Halo, but You Can’t Directly See It:

Scientists believe that 90% of our galaxy’s mass consists of dark matter, which gives it a mysterious halo. That means that all of the “luminous matter” – i.e. that which we can see with the naked eye or a telescopes – makes up less than 10% of the mass of the Milky Way. Its halo is not the conventional glowing sort we tend to think of when picturing angels or observing comets.

In this case, the halo is actually invisible, but its existence has been demonstrated by running simulations of how the Milky Way would appear without this invisible mass, and how fast the stars inside our galaxy’s disk orbit the center.

The heavier the galaxy, the faster they should be orbiting. If one were to assume that the galaxy is made up only of matter that we can see, then the rotation rate would be significantly less than what we observe. Hence, the rest of that mass must be made up of an elusive, invisible mass – aka. “dark matter” – or matter that only interacts gravitationally with “normal matter”.

To see some images of the probable distribution and density of dark matter in our galaxy, check out The Via Lactea Project.

3. It has Over 200 Billion Stars:

As galaxies go, the Milky Way is a middleweight. The largest galaxy we know of, which is designated IC 1101, has over 100 trillion stars, and other large galaxies can have as many as a trillion. Dwarf galaxies such as the aforementioned Large Magellanic Cloud have about 10 billion stars. The Milky Way has between 100-400 billion stars; but when you look up into the night sky, the most you can see from any one point on the globe is about 2,500. This number is not fixed, however, because the Milky Way is constantly losing stars through supernovae, and producing new ones all the time (about seven per year).

These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show dust and gas concentrations around a distant supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

4. It’s Really Dusty and Gassy:

Though it may not look like it to the casual observer, the Milky Way is full of dust and gas. This matter makes up a whopping 10-15% of the luminous/visible matter 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.

The thickness of the dust deflects visible light (as is explained here) but infrared light can pass through the dust, which makes infrared telescopes like the Spitzer Space Telescope extremely valuable tools in mapping and studying the galaxy. Spitzer can peer through the dust to give us extraordinarily clear views of what is going on at the heart of the galaxy and in star-forming regions.

5. It was Made From Other Galaxies:

The Milky Way wasn’t always as it is today – a beautiful, warped spiral. 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.

6. Every Picture You’ve Seen of the Milky Way Isn’t It:

Currently, we can’t take a picture of the Milky Way from above. This is due to the fact that we are inside the galactic disk, about 26,000 light years from the galactic center. It would be like trying to take a picture of your own house from the inside. This means that any of the beautiful pictures you’ve ever seen of a spiral galaxy that is supposedly the Milky Way is either a picture of another spiral galaxy, or the rendering of a talented artist.

Artist's concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Imaging the Milky Way from above is a long, long way off. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t take breathtaking images of the Milky Way from our vantage point!

7. There is a Black Hole at the Center:

Most larger galaxies have a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center, and the Milky Way is no exception. The center of our galaxy is called Sagittarius A*, a massive source of radio waves that is believed to be a black hole that measures 22,5 million kilometers (14 million miles) across – about the size of Mercury’s orbit. But this is just the black hole itself.

All of the mass trying to get into the black hole – called the accretion disk – forms a disk that has 4.6 million times the mass of our Sun and would fit inside the orbit of the Earth. Though like other black holes, Sgr A* tries to consume anything that happens to be nearby, star formation has been detected near this behemoth astronomical phenomenon.

8. It’s Almost as Old as the Universe Itself:

The most recent estimates place the age of the Universe at about 13.7 billion years. Our Milky Way has been around for about 13.6 billion of those years, give or take another 800 million. The oldest stars in our the Milky Way are found in globular clusters, and the age of our galaxy is determined by measuring the age of these stars, and then extrapolating the age of what preceded them.

Though some of the constituents of the Milky Way have been around for a long time, the disk and bulge themselves didn’t form until about 10-12 billion years ago. And that bulge may have formed earlier than the rest of the galaxy.

9. It’s Part of the Virgo Supercluster:

As big as it is, the Milky Way is part of an even larger galactic structures. Our closest neighbors include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the Andromeda Galaxy – the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. Along with some 50 other galaxies, the Milky Way and its immediate surroundings make up a cluster known as the Local Group.

A mosaic of telescopic images showing the galaxies of the Virgo Supercluster. Credit: NASA/Rogelio Bernal Andreo
A mosaic of telescopic images showing the galaxies of the Virgo Supercluster. Credit: NASA/Rogelio Bernal Andreo

And yet, this is still just a small fraction of our stellar neighborhood. Farther out, we find that the Milky Way is part of an even larger grouping of galaxies known as the Virgo Supercluster. Superclusters are groupings of galaxies on very large scales that measure in the hundreds of millions of light years in diameter. In between these superclusters are large stretches of open space where intrepid explorers or space probes would encounter very little in the way of galaxies or matter.

In the case of the Virgo Supercluster, at least 100 galaxy groups and clusters are located within it massive 33 megaparsec (110 million light-year) diameter. And a 2014 study indicates that the Virgo Supercluster is only a lobe of a greater supercluster, Laniakea, which is centered on the Great Attractor.

10. It’s on the move:

The Milky Way, along with everything else in the Universe, is moving through space. The Earth moves around the Sun, the Sun around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way as part of the Local Group, which is moving relative to the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation – the radiation left over from the Big Bang.

The CMB is a convenient reference point to use when determining the velocity of things in the universe. Relative to the CMB, the Local Group is calculated to be moving at a speed of about 600 km/s, which works out to about 2.2 million km/h. Such speeds stagger the mind and squash any notions of moving fast within our humble, terrestrial frame of reference!

We have written many interesting 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?

For many more facts about the Milky Way, visit the Guide to Space, listen to the Astronomy Cast episode on the Milky Way, or visit the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space at seds.org.