Astronomers Start Mapping the Structure of the Far Side of the Milky Way

Since the 18th century, astronomers have been aware that our Solar System is embedded in a vast disk of stars and gas known as the Milky Way Galaxy. Since that time, the greatest scientific minds have been attempting to obtain accurate distance measurements in order to determine just how large the Milky Way is. This has been no easy task, since the fact that we are embedded in our galaxy’s disk means that we cannot view it head-on.

But thanks to a time-tested technique called trigonometric parallax, a team of astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) were recently able to directly measure the distance to the opposite side of the Milky Way Galaxy. Aside from being an historic first, this feat has nearly doubled the previous record for distance measurements within our galaxy.

The study which described this accomplishment, titled “Mapping Spiral Structure on the far side of the Milky Way“, recently appeared in the journal Science. Led by Alberto Sanna, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, the team consulted data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) to determine the distance to a star-forming region on the other side of our galaxy.

Artist’s view of the Milky Way with the location of the Sun and the star forming region at the opposite side in the Scutum-Centaurus spiral arm. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF; Robert Hurt, NASA.

To do this, the team relied on a technique first applied by Freidrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1838 to measure the distance to the star 61 Cygni. Known as trigonometric parallax, this technique involves viewing an object from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and then measuring the angle of the object’s apparent shift in position. In this way, astronomers are able to use simple trigonometry to calculate the distance to that object.

In short, the smaller the measured angle, the greater the distance to the object. These measurements were performed using data from the Bar and Spiral Structure Legacy (BeSSeL) Survey, which was named in honor of Freidrich Wilhelm Bessel. But whereas Bessel and his contemporaries were forced to measure parallax using basic instruments, the VLBA has ten dish antennas distributed across North America, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.

With such an array at its disposal, the VLBA is capable of measuring parallaxes with one thousand times the accuracy of those performed by astronomers in Bessel’s time. And rather than being confined to nearby star systems, the VLBA is capable of measuring the minuscule angles associated with vast cosmological distances. As Sanna explained in a recent MPIfR press release:

“Using the VLBA, we now can accurately map the whole extent of our Galaxy. Most of the stars and gas in our Galaxy are within this newly-measured distance from the Sun. With the VLBA, we now have the capability to measure enough distances to accurately trace the Galaxy’s spiral arms and learn their true shapes.”

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

The VLBA observations, which were conducted in 2014 and 2015, measured the distance to the star-forming region known as G007.47+00.05. Like all star-forming regions, this one contains molecules of water and methanol, which act as natural amplifiers of radio signals. This results in masers (the radio-wave equivalent of lasers), an effect that makes the radio signals appear bright and readily observable with radio telescopes.

This particular region is located over 66,000 light years from Earth and at on opposite side of the Milky Way, relative to our Solar System. The previous record for a parallax measurement was about 36,000 light-years, roughly 11,000 light years farther than the distance between our Solar System and the center of our galaxy. As Sanna explained, this accomplishment in radio astronomy will enable surveys that reach much farther than previous ones:

“Most of the stars and gas in our Galaxy are within this newly-measured distance from the Sun. With the VLBA, we now have the capability to measure enough distances to accurately trace the Galaxy’s spiral arms and learn their true shapes.”

Hundreds of star-forming regions exist within the Milky Way. But as Karl Menten – a member of the MPIfR and a co-author on the study – explained, this study was significant because of where this one is located. “So we have plenty of ‘mileposts’ to use for our mapping project,” he said. “But this one is special: Looking all the way through the Milky Way, past its center, way out into the other side.”

The band of light (the Milky Way) that is visible in the night sky, showing the stellar disk of our galaxy. Credit: Bob King

In the coming years, Sanna and his colleagues hope to conduct additional observations of G007.47+00.05 and other distant star-forming regions of the Milky Way. Ultimately, the goal is to gain a complete understanding of our galaxy, one that is so accurate that scientists will be able to finally place precise constraints on its size, mass, and its total number of stars.

With the necessary tools now in hand, Sanna and his team even estimate that a complete picture of the Milky Way could be available in about ten years time. Imagine that! Future generations will be able to study the Milky Way with the same ease as one that is located nearby, and which they can view edge-on. At long last, all those artist’s impression of our Milky Way will be to scale!

Further Reading: MPIfR, Science

Messier 20 (M20) – The Trifid Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Trifid Nebula (aka. Messier 20). Enjoy!

Back in the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of these objects so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. Consisting of 100 objects, the Messier Catalog would come to be viewed by posterity as a major milestone in the study of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the Trifid Nebula (aka. Messier 20, NGC 6514), a star-forming region of ionized gas located in the Scutum spiral arm of the Milky Way, in the direction of the southern Sagittarius constellation. A bright object that is a favorite amongst amateur astronomers, this object is so-named because it is a combination open star cluster, emissions nebula, reflection nebula, and a dark nebula that looks like it consists of three lobes.

Description:

Almost everyone who is familiar with space images has likely seen a beautiful color image of this emission and reflection nebula. However, when looking at M20 through a telescope, what you will see will be less colorful. Why? When it comes to photographs, exposure times and wavelengths cause different colors to become visible.

Composite image comparing visible-light views from Hubble of the Trifid Nebula with an infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope of the glowing Trifid Nebula. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Rho (SSC/Caltech)
Composite image comparing visible-light views from Hubble of the Trifid Nebula with an infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope of the glowing Trifid Nebula. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Rho (SSC/Caltech)

Photographically, the red emission nebula contained within Messier 20 has a bright blue star cluster in it central portion. It glows red because the ultraviolet light of the stars ionizes the hydrogen gas, which then recombines and emits the characteristic red hydrogen-alpha light captured on film. Further away, the radiation from these hot, young stars becomes too weak to ionize the hydrogen. Now the gas and dust glows blue by reflection!

No matter how it is observed, the Trifid – or “three lobed” – nebula has a distinctive set of dark dust lanes which divide it. These also have a classification of their own, and were cataloged by E.E. Barnard as a dark nebula – Barnard 85 (B 85). In 1999 the Hubble Space Telescope took a look deep into the Trifid nebula at some of its star forming regions (see below).

What it found was a stellar jet poking its way into the cloud, like a fabulous twisted antenna. Inside the exhaust column is a new star waiting to be born, yet sometime over the next 10,000 years the central massive star will probably erode away all of its material before it can fully form. Nearby, a stalk stands waiting.

Close up on the interiotr of the Trifid Nebula. Credit: NASA/HST
Close up on the interior of the Trifid Nebula, showing the star forming region and a stellar jet. Credit: NASA/HST

Like the jet, it is also a stellar nursery – one with an EGG (evaporating gaseous globule) at its tip – a condensed cloud of gas able to survive so far. As Jeff Hester of the Department of Physics & Astronomy explained:

“If our interpretation is correct, the microjet may be the last gasp from a star that was cut off from its supply lines 100,000 years ago. The vast majority of stars like our sun form not in isolation, but in the neighborhood of massive, powerful stars. HST observations of the Trifid Nebula provide a window on the nature of star formation in the vicinity of massive stars, as well as a spectacular snapshot of the “ecology” from which stars like our sun emerge.”

We know that Messier 20 contains new stars, but what about old stars? Are there surprises buried within these bright folds that still await discovery? According to F. Yusef-Zadeh (et al) and a 2000 study titled “Radio continuum emission from the central stars of M20 and the detection of a new supernova remnant near M20“, the answer is yes:

“We report the discovery of a new candidate barrel-shaped supernova remnant (SNR) lying adjacent to M20 and two shell-type features to the north and east of SNR W28. Future observations should clarify whether the nonthermal shell fragment is either part of W20 or yet another previously unidentified shell-type SNR.”

The Trifid nebula (M20, NGC NGC 6514) in pseudocolor. Image taken with the Palomar 1.5-m telescope. The field of view is 16’ ´ 16’. Red shows [S II] ll 6717+6731. Green shows Ha l 6563. Blue shows [O III] l 5007. The WFPC2 field of view is indicated. Image: Jeff Hester (Arizona State University), Palomar telescope.
The Trifid nebula (M20, NGC NGC 6514) in pseudocolor. Image taken with the Palomar 1.5-m telescope. Credit: Jeff Hester (Arizona State University)/Palomar telescope

History of Observation:

Charles Messier discovered this object on June 5th, 1764. As he recorded of the object in his notes:

“In the same night I have determined the position of two clusters of stars which are close to each other, a bit above the Ecliptic, between the bow of Sagittarius and the right foot of Ophiuchus: the known star closest to these two clusters is the 11th of the constellation Sagittarius, of seventh magnitude, after the catalog of Flamsteed: the stars of these clusters are, from the eighth to the ninth magnitude, environed with nebulosities. I have determined their positions. The right ascension of the first cluster, 267d 4′ 5″, its declination 22d 59′ 10″ south. The right ascension of the second, 267d 31′ 35″; its declination, 22d 31′ 25″ south.”

While Messier did separate the two star clusters, he did not note so many different portions to the nebula – but, he did note nebulosity. In this circumstance, we cannot fault him. His purpose was to locate comets, after all; and the reason for the catalog was to list objects that were not. In later years, it would be Sir William Herschel who would take a closer look at Messier 20 and discover much more. As he wrote of the nebula:

“If it was supposed that double nebulae at some distance from each other would frequently be seen, it will now on the contrary be admitted that an expectation of finding a great number of attracting centers in a nebulosity of no great extent is not so probable; and accordingly observation has shewn that greater combinations of nebular than those of the foregoing article are less frequently to be seen. The following list however contains 20 treble, 5 quadruple, and 1 sextuple nebulae of this sort. Among the treble nebulae there is one, namely H V.10 [M20], of which the nebulosity is not yet separated. Three nebulae seem to join faintly together, forming a kind of triangle; the middle of which is less nebulous, or perhaps free of nebulosity; in the middle of the triangle is a double star of the 2nd or 3rd class; more faint nebulosities are following.”

A close detail of the Trifid Nebula, showing the "Pillar region". Credit: NASA and Jeff Hester (Arizona State University).
A close detail of the Trifid Nebula, showing a “Pillar” region. Credit: NASA/Jeff Hester (Arizona State University).

While William went on to catalog four separate areas in his books, it was his son John to whom we owe the famous name that we know it by today. “A most remarkable object. Very large; trifid, three nebulae with a vacuity in the midst, in which is centrally situated the double star Sh 379, the nebula is 7′ in extent. A most remarkable object.”

Just remember when you observe that sky conditions are everything and that not even a large telescope can make it appear if the sky isn’t right. Even Admiral Smyth has his share of troubles spotting it. Said he of the Trifid Nebula:

“I lowered the telescope a couple of degrees, and gazed for the curious trifid nebula, 41 H. IV [H IV.41]; but though I could make out the delicate triple star in the centre of its opening, the nebulous matter resisted the light of my telescope, so that its presence was only indicated by a peculiar glow. Pretty closely preceding this is No. 20 M., an elegant cruciform group of stars, discovered in 1764, which he considered to be surrounded with nebulosity.”

Locating Messier 20:

Once you have become familiar with the Sagittarius region, finding Messier 20 is easy, since it is located just 2 degrees northwest of Messier 8 – the “Lagoon” Nebula. However, at magnitude 9, it isn’t an easy to spot with small binoculars, and not always easy for a small telescope either. Because we often see it depicted in pictures as bright and beautiful, we simply assume M20 will jump out of the sky; but you’ll find that its a lot fainter and more elusive than you might think.

The Sagittarius constellation. Credit: iau.org
The Sagittarius constellation. Credit: iau.org

If you are a beginner to astronomy, try starting at the teapot’s tip star (Lambda), “Al Nasl”, and starhopping in the finderscope northwest to the Lagoon. While the nebulosity might not show in your finder, the optical double star 7 Sagittari, will. From there you will spot a bright cluster of stars two degrees due north. These are the stars embedded withing the Trifid and the small, compressed area of stars to its northeast is the open star cluster of Messier 21.

Center your finderscope on the north and south oriented pair of stars and observe. Remember that you will need a moonless night and that sky conditions will need to be right to see the dark dustlanes! And here are the quick facts about M20, for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 20
Alternative Designations: M20, NGC 6514, Trifid Nebula
Object Type: Emission Nebula and Reflection Nebula with Open Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 02.6 (h:m)
Declination: -23 : 02 (deg:m)
Distance: 5.2 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 9.0 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 28.0 (arc min)

Good luck and enjoy your observations!

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Messier 17 (M17) – the Omega Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 17 nebula – aka. The Omega Nebula (and a few other names).

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.

One of these is the star-forming nebula known as Messier 17 – or as it’s more famously known, the Omega Nebula (or Swan Nebula, Checkmark Nebula, and Horseshoe Nebula). Located in the Sagittarius constellation, this beautiful nebula is considered one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions in our galaxy.

Description:

From its position in space some 5,000 to 6,000 light years from Earth, the “Omega” nebula occupies a region as large as 40 light years across, with its brightest porition covering a 15 light year expanse. Like many nebulae, this giant cosmic cloud of interstellar matter is a starforming region in the Sagittarius or Sagittarius-Carina arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

What you see is the hot hydrogen gas that is illuminated when its particles are excited by the hottest of the stars that have just formed within the nebula. Also, some of the light is being reflected by the nebula’s own dust. These remain hidden by dark obscuring material, and we know their presence only through the detection of their infrared radiation.

Credit: NASA/Ignacio de la Cueva Torregrosa
Image of M17 showing specific elements based on their color, including sulfur (red), hydrogen (green), oxygen (blue). Credit: NASA/Ignacio de la Cueva Torregrosa

In an study titled “Interstellar Weather Vanes: GLIMPSE Mid-Infrared Stellar-Wind Bowshocks in M17 and RCW49“, astronomer Matthew S. Povich (et al.) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said of M17:

“We report the discovery of six infrared stellar-wind bowshocks in the Galactic massive star formation regions M17 and RCW49 from Spitzer GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire) images. The InfraRed Array Camera (IRAC) on the Spitzer Space Telescope clearly resolves the arc-shaped emission produced by the bowshocks. We use the stellar SEDs to estimate the spectral types of the three newly-identified O stars in RCW49 and one previously undiscovered O star in M17. One of the bowshocks in RCW49 reveals the presence of a large-scale flow of gas escaping the HII region. Radiation-transfer modeling of the steep rise in the SED of this bowshock toward longer mid-infrared wavelengths indicates that the emission is coming principally from dust heated by the star driving the shock. The other 5 bowshocks occur where the stellar winds of O stars sweep up dust in the expanding HII regions.”

Is Messier 17 still actively producing stars? You bet. Even protostars have been discovered hiding in its folds. As M. Nielbock (et al), wrote in 2008:

“For the first time, we resolve the elongated central infrared emission of the large accretion disk in M 17 into a point-source and a jet-like feature that extends to the northeast. We regard the unresolved emission as to originate from an accreting intermediate to high-mass protostar. In addition, our images reveal a weak and curved southwestern lobe whose morphology resembles that of the previously detected northeastern one. We interpret these lobes as the working surfaces of a recently detected jet interacting with the ambient medium at a distance of 1700 AU from the disk centre. The accreting protostar is embedded inside a circumstellar disk and an envelope causing a visual extinction. This and its K-band magnitude argue in favour of an intermediate to high-mass object, equivalent to a spectral type of at least B4. For a main-sequence star, this would correspond to a stellar mass of 4 M.”

Omega Nebula location. Image: Wikisky
The location of the Omega Nebula, with other Messier objects and major stars shown. Image: Wikisky

How many new stars lay hidden inside? Far more than the famous Orion nebula may contain. So says a 2013 study produced by L. Eisa (et al):

“The complex resembles the Orion Nebula/KL region seen nearly edge-on: the bowl-shaped ionization blister is eroding the edge of the clumpy molecular cloud and triggering massive star formation, as evidenced by an ultra-compact HII region and luminous protostars. Only the most massive members of the young NGC 6618 stellar cluster exciting the nebula have been characterized, due to the comparatively high extinction. Near-infrared imagery and spectroscopy reveal an embedded cluster of about 100 stars earlier than B9. These studies did not cover the entire cluster, so even more early stars may be present. This is substantially richer than the Orion Nebula Cluster which has only 8 stars between O6 and B9.”

History of Observation:

The Omega Nebula was first discovered by Philippe Loys de Cheseaux and is just one of the six nebulae in his documents. As he wrote of his discovery:

“Finally, another nebula, which has never been observed. It is of a completely different shape than the others: It has perfectly the form of a ray, or of the tail of a comet, of 7′ length and 2′ broadth; its sides are exactly parallel and rather well terminated, as are its two ends. Its middle is whiter than the border.” Because De Cheseaux’s work wasn’t widely read, Charles Messier independently rediscovered it on June 3, 1764 and cataloged it in his own way: “In the same night, I have discovered at little distance of the cluster of stars of which I just have told, a train of light of five or six minutes of arc in extension, in the shape of a spindle, and in almost the same as that in the girdle of Andromeda; but of a very faint light, not containing any star; one can see two of them nearby which are telescopic and placed parallel to the Equator: in a good sky one perceives very well that nebula with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half. I have determined its position in right ascension of 271d 45′ 48″, and its declination of 16d 14′ 44” south.

Omega Nebula sketch by John Herschel, 1833. Credit: messier-objects.com
Omega Nebula sketch by John Herschel, 1833. Credit: messier-objects.com

By historical accounts, it was Sir William Herschel who may have truly had a little bit of insight on what this object might one day mean when he observed it on his own and reported:

“1783, July 31. A very singular nebula; it seems to be the link to join the nebula in Orion to others, for this is not without a possibility of being stars. I think a great deal more of light and a much higher power would be of service. 1784, June 22 (Sw. 231). A wonderful nebula. Very much extended, with a hook on the preceding [Western] side; the nebulosity of the milky kind; several stars visible in it, but they seem to have no connection with the nebula, which is far more distant. I saw it only through short intervals of flying clouds and haziness; but the extent of the light including the hook is above 10′. I suspect besides, that on the following [Eastern] side it goes on much farther and diffuses itself towards the north and south. It is not of equal brightness throughout and has one or more places where the milky nebulosity seems to degenerate into the resolvable [mottled] kind; such a one is that just following the hook towards the north. Should this be confirmed on a very fine night, it would bring on the step between these two nebulosities which is at present wanting, and would lead us to surmise that this nebula is a stupendous stratum of immensely distant fixed stars, some of whose branches come near enough to us to be visible as a resolvable nebulosity, while the rest runs on to so great a distance as only to appear under the milky form.”

So where did the name “Omega Nebula” come from? That credit goes to John Herschel, who stated in his observing notes:

“The figure of this nebula is nearly that of the Greek capital Omega, somewhat distorted and very unequally bright. It is remarkable that this is the form usually attributed to the great nebula in Orion, though in that nebula I confess I can discern no resemblence whatever to the Greek letter. Messier perceived only the bright preceding branch of the nebula now in question, without any of the attached convolutions which were first noticed by my Father. The chief peculiarities which I have observed in it are, 1st, the resolvable knot in the following portion of the bright branch, which is in a considerable degree insulated from the surrounding nebula; strongly suggesting the idea of an absorption of nebulous matter; and 2ndly, the much feebler and smaller knot in the north preceding end of the same branch, where the nebula makes a sudden bend at an acute angle. With a view to a more exact representation of this curious nebula, I have at different times taken micrometrical measures of the relative places of the stars in and near it, by which, when laid down on the chart, its limits may be traced and identified, as I hope soon to have better opportunity to do than its low situation in this latitudes will permit.”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich (Univ. of Wisconsin)
Infrared images of M17, taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich (Univ. of Wisconsin)

Locating Messier 17:

Because M17 is both large and quite bright, its distinctive “2” shape isn’t hard to make out in optics of any size. For binoculars and image correct finderscopes, try starting with the constellation of Aquila and begin tracing the stars down the eagle’s back to Lambda. When you reach that point, continue to extend the line through to Alpha Scuti, then southwards towards Gamma Scuti. M16 is slightly more than 2 degrees (about a fingerwidth) southwest of this star.

If you are in a dark sky location, you can also identify it easily in binoculars by starting at the M24 “Star Cloud”, north of Lambda Sagittari (the teapot lid star), and simply scanning north. This nebula is bright enough to even cut through moderately light polluted skies with ease, but don’t expect to see it when the Moon is nearby. You’ll enjoy the rich starfields combined with an interesting nebula in binoculars, while telescopes will easily begin resolving the interior stars.

And here are the quick facts on M17 for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 17
Alternative Designations: M17, NGC 6618, Omega, Swan, Horseshoe, or Lobster Nebula
Object Type: Open Star Cluster with Emission Nebula
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 20.8 (h:m)
Declination: -16 : 11 (deg:m)
Distance: 5.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.0 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11.0 (arc min)

And be sure to enjoy this video from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) that shows this nebula in all its glory:

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.