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:

What’s Outside the Universe?

A few hundred episodes ago, I answered the question, “What is the Universe Expanding Into?” The gist of the answer is that the Universe as we understand it, isn’t really expanding into anything.

If you go in any one direction long enough, you just return to your starting point. As the Universe expands, that journey takes longer, but there’s still nothing that it’s going into.

Okay, so, I need to put an asterisk on that answer, and then when you read the fine print it’d say something like, “unless we live in a multiverse”.

One of the super interesting and definitely way out there ideas is that our cosmos to actually just one universe in a vast multiverse. Each universe is sort of like a soap bubble embedded in the cosmic void of the multiverse, expanding from its own Big Bang.

Our universe could actually be part of a larger multiverse. Credit: Jim Misti (Misti Mountain Observatory)
Our universe could actually be part of a larger multiverse. Credit: Jim Misti (Misti Mountain Observatory)

And in each one of these universes, the laws of physics are completely different. There are actually a bunch of physical constants in the Universe, like the force of gravity or the binding strength of atoms. For each one of those basic constants, it’s as if the laws of physics randomly rolled the dice, and came up with our Universe – a place that’s almost, but not completely hostile to life.

So imagine all these different bubble universes popping up in this vast cosmic foam of the multiverse, and the laws of physics are different. Maybe in another universe, the force of gravity is repulsive, or green, or spawns unicorns.

In the vast majority of those universes, no life could ever form, but roll the dice an infinite number of times and you’ll eventually get the conditions for life.

Any lifeform capable of perceiving the Universe had to evolve into a universe capable of life.

Of course, this sounds like pseudo scientific mumbo jumbo, and next you’ll expect me to talk about chakras, astrology and channeling the spirit of Big Foot.

However, hang on a second, this might actually be science. If these bubble universes got close enough, there might be a way they could rub together, to interact in ways that were detectable from within the Universe.

In other words, we could look out into space and see a cosmic bruise, and know that’s where our universe is colliding with another one.

Well, have astronomers looked out into space, in search of some sign that our Universe is interacting with other universes? Indeed they have, and they’ve found something really strange.

The cosmic microwave background radiation, enhanced to show the anomalies. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration
The cosmic microwave background radiation, enhanced to show the anomalies. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

When examining the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the afterglow leftover from the Big Bang, astronomers have found a temperature fluctuations. These different temperatures, or anisotropies are regions where different densities of matter in the early Universe were scaled up to enormous scales by the ongoing expansion.

While most of these differences in temperature are explained by the current cosmological theories for the Universe, there’s one region that defies the theories. It’s so strange, the researchers who discovered it hilariously named it the “Axis of Evil” after something some president said.

Anyway, there are lots of ideas for what the Axis of Evil might be. Seriously, every single one of them is more reasonable and more likely than what I’m about to say.

But one really fascinating idea is that we’re seeing a region where our Universe is bumping into another universe, violating each other’s laws of physics.

So if this is the case, and astronomers are witnessing a universal interaction, what does this mean for the poor aliens who might be getting overlapped by the next universe over?

We have no idea, but imagine what might happen as the laws of physics from two completely different universes overlap. What is the average of 7 and green? Or 26 and unicorn dreams? Whatever it is, it can’t be good for the aliens and their continued healthy existence.

But don’t worry, that region is billions of light years away, and it’s probably not another universe anyway, we just need better observations.

We covered this topic in great detail in episode 408 of Astronomy Cast, so if you want hear more from Dr. Pamela Gay, click here and watch the show. You’ll especially enjoy watching me pick up the shattered pieces of my brain as I try to wrap my head around this mind bending concept.

Do We Live in a Special Part of the Universe?

We’ve already talked about how you’re living at the center of the Universe. Now, I’m not going to say that the whole Universe revolves around you… but we both know it does. So does this mean that there’s something special about where we live? This is a reasonable line of thinking, and it was how modern science got its start. The first astronomers assumed that the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbited around the Earth. That the Earth was a very special and unique place, distinct from the rest of the Universe. But as astronomers started puzzling out the nature of the laws of physics, they realized that the Earth wasn’t as special as they thought. In fact, the laws of nature that govern the forces on Earth are the same everywhere in the Universe. As Isaac Newton untangled the laws of gravity here on Earth, he realized it must be the same forces that caused the Moon to go around the Earth, and the planets to go around the Sun. That the light from the Sun is the same phenomenon as the light from other stars.

 ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. Credit: Iztok Bon?ina / ESO
ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. Credit: Iztok Bon?ina / ESO

When astronomers consider the Universe at the largest scales, they assume that it’s homogeneous, and isotropic. Technical words, I know, so here’s what they mean. When astronomers say the Universe is homogeneous, this means that observers in any part of the Universe will see roughly the same view as observers in any other part. There might be local differences, like our mostly harmless planet Earth, orbiting the future course of an interstellar bypass. Or a desert planet with two suns, or a swampy world in the Dagobah system. At the smallest scales, they’ll be different. But as you move to larger and larger scales, it’s all just planets, stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and black holes. And if you unfocus your eyes, it all looks pretty much the same. Isotropic means that the Universe looks the same in every direction. If you were floating alone in the cosmic void, you could look left, right, up, down out to the edge of the observable Universe and see galaxies, galaxy clusters and eventually the cosmic microwave background radiation in all directions. Every direction looks the same. This is know as the cosmological principle, and it’s one of the foundations of astronomy, because it means that we have a chance at understanding the physical laws of the Universe. If the Universe wasn’t homogeneous and isotropic, then it would mean that the physical laws as we understand them are impossible to comprehend. Just over the cosmological horizon, the force of gravity might act in reverse, the speed of light might be slower than walking speed, and unicorns could be real. That could be true, but we have to assume it’s not. And our current observations, at least to a sphere 13.8 billion light years around us in all directions, confirm this.

The Hubble Telescope's view of Omega Centauri. Credit: NASA / ESA / The Hubble SM4 ERO Team
The Hubble Telescope’s view of Omega Centauri. Credit: NASA / ESA / The Hubble SM4 ERO Team

While we don’t live in a special place in the Universe, we do live in a special time in the Universe. In the distant future, billions or even trillions of years from now, galaxies will be flying away from us so quickly that their light will never reach us. The cosmic background microwave radiation will be redshifted so far that it’s completely undetectable. Future astronomers will have no idea that there was ever a greater cosmology beyond the Milky Way itself. The evidence of the Big Bang and the ongoing expansion of the Universe will be lost forever. If we didn’t happen to live when we do now, within billions of years of the beginning of the Universe, we’d never know the truth. We can’t feel special about our place in the Universe, it’s probably the same wherever you go. But we can feel special about our time in the Universe. Future astronomers will never understand the cosmology and history of the cosmos the way we do now.

Farthest Galaxy Ever Seen Viewed By Hubble Telescope

Since it was first launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided people all over the world with breathtaking views of the Universe. Using its high-tech suite of instruments, Hubble has helped resolve some long-standing problems in astronomy, and helped to raise new questions. And always, its operators have been pushing it to the limit, hoping to gaze farther and farther into the great beyond and see what’s lurking there.

And as NASA announced with a recent press release, using the HST, an international team of astronomers just shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. In so doing, they have not only looked deeper into the cosmos than ever before, but deeper into it’s past. And what they have seen could tell us much about the early Universe and its formation.

Due to the effects of special relativity, astronomers know that when they are viewing objects in deep space, they are seeing them as they were millions or even billions of years ago. Ergo, an objects that is located 13.4 billions of light-years away will appear to us as it was 13.4 billion years ago, when its light first began to make the trip to our little corner of the Universe.

An international team of scientists has used the Hubble Space Telescope to spectroscopically confirm the farthest galaxy to date. Credits: NASA/ESA/B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz)/A. Feild (STScI)
An international team of scientists has used the Hubble Space Telescope to spectroscopically confirm the farthest galaxy to date. Credits: NASA/ESA/B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz)/A. Feild (STScI)

This is precisely what the team of astronomers witnessed when they gazed upon GN-z11, a distant galaxy located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. With this one galaxy, the team of astronomers – which includes scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California – were able to see what a galaxy in our Universe looked like just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Prior to this, the most distant galaxy ever viewed by astronomers was located 13.2 billion light years away. Using the same spectroscopic techniques, the Hubble team confirmed that GN-z11 was nearly 200 million light years more distant. This was a big surprise, as it took astronomers into a region of the Universe that was thought to be unreachable using the Hubble Space Telescope.

In fact, astronomers did not suspect that they would be able to probe this deep into space and time without using Spitzer, or until the deployment the James Webb Space Telescope – which is scheduled to launch in October 2018. As Pascal Oesch of Yale University, the principal investigator of the study, explained:

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age. Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory.”

The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It's about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. Credit: NASA

In addition, the findings also have some implications for previous distance estimates. In the past, astronomers had estimated the distance of GN-z11 by relying on Hubble and Spitzer’s color imaging techniques. This time, they relied on Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to spectroscopically measure the galaxies redshift for the first time. In so doing, they determined that GN-z11 was farther way than they thought, which could mean that some particularly bright galaxies who’s distanced have been measured using Hubble could also be farther away.

The results also reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. For starters, the Hubble images (combined with data from Spitzer) showed that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way is today, and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. At the same time, it is forming stars at a rate that is 20 times greater than that of our own galaxy.

As Garth Illingworth – one of the team’s investigator’s from the University of California, Santa Cruz – explained:

“It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon. This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

Last, but not least, they provide a tantalizing clue as to what future missions – like the James Webb Space Telescope – will be finding. Once deployed, astronomers will likely be looking ever farther into space, and farther into the past. With every step, we are closing in on seeing what the very first galaxies that formed in our Universe looked like.

Further Reading: NASA

Our Place in the Universe: The Most Detailed Map Yet

Astronomy and the other space sciences are the best branches of science for pure eye candy. Biology is great, but who wants to watch videos of a cell dividing? Over and over again. Not me, and not you either, I’ll bet.

This new video from Futurism.com shows our place in the Laniakea Supercluster. Superclusters are the largest-scale structures in the universe, and next to them, we are indeed puny creatures. Our Milky Way galaxy is but a tiny dot in an unremarkable corner of Laniakea.

Thanks to Futurism.com, Nature.com, and R. Brent Tully at the University of Hawaii, we can see better than ever how we Milky Way inhabitants fit into the larger structure of the Universe.

This video is actually a spiffy new edit of an older video, with explanatory voice-over. Check it out.