New Map Shows the Motion of all the Galaxies in Our Supercluster

For almost a century, astronomers have understood that the Universe is in a state of expansion. This is a consequence of General Relativity, and the rate at which it is expanding is known as the Hubble Constant – named after the man who first noticed the phenomena. However, astronomers have also learned that withing the large-scale structures of the Universe, galaxies and clusters have also been moving closer and relative to one other.

For decades, astronomers have sought to track how these movements have taken place over the course of cosmic history. And thanks to the efforts of international team of astronomers, the most detailed map to date of the orbits of galaxies that lie within the Virgo Supercluster has been created. This map encompasses the past motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light years of space, showing how our cosmic neighborhood has changed.

The study which details their research recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “Action Dynamics of the Local Supercluster“. Led by Edward J. Shaya of the University of Maryland, the team included members from the UH Institute of Astronomy, the Racah Institute of Physics in Jerusalem, and the Institute for Research of the Fundamental Laws of the Universe (IRFU) in Paris.

Orbits of galaxies in the Local Supercluster. Credit: Brent Tully.

For the sake of their study, the team used data from the CosmicFlows surveys, a series of three studies that calculated the distance and speed of neighboring galaxies between 2011 and 2016. Several members of the study team were involved in these surveys, which they then paired with other distance and gravity field estimates to construct a massive flow study of the Virgo Supercluster.

From this, they were able to create computer models that charted the motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light years, and over the course of 13 billion years (just 800 million years after the Big Bang). As Brent Tully, an astronomer with the UH Institute of Astronomy and a co-author on the study, explained in a UH press release:

“For the first time, we are not only visualizing the detailed structure of our Local Supercluster of galaxies but we are seeing how the structure developed over the history of the universe. An analogy is the study of the current geography of the Earth from the movement of plate tectonics.”

What they found was that their models fit the present day velocity flow well, meaning that the structures and speeds they observed in their models fit with what has been observed from galaxies in the present day. They also determined that within the area of space they mapped, the main gravitational attractor is the Virgo Cluster – which is located about 50 million light years away and contains between 1300 and 2000 galaxies.

Moreover, their study indicated that more than a thousand galaxies have fallen into the Virgo Cluster in the past 13 billion years, while all galaxies within 40 million light-years of the cluster will eventually be captured. At present, the Milky Way lies just outside this capture zone, but both the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are destined to merge in the next 4 billion years.

Once they do, the fate of the resulting massive galaxy will be similar to the rest of the galaxies in the area of study. This was another takeaway from the study, where the team determined that these merger events are merely part of a larger pattern. Basically, within the region of space they observed, there are two overarching flow patterns. Within one hemisphere of this region, all galaxies – including the Milky Way – are streaming towards a single flat sheet.

At the same time, every galaxy over the entire volume of space is moving towards gravitational attractors that are located far beyond the area of study. They determined that these outside forces are none other than the Centaurus Supercluster – a cluster of hundreds of galaxies, located approximately 170 million light years away in the Centaurus constellation – and the Great Attractor.

The Great Attractor is located 150 million light years away, and is a mysterious region that cannot be seen because of its location (on the opposite side of the Milky Way). However, for decades, scientists have known that our galaxy and other nearby galaxies are moving towards it. The region is also the core of the Laniakea Supercluster, a region that spans more than 500 million light-years and contains about 100,000 large galaxies.

In short, while the Universe is in a state of expansion, the dynamics of galaxies and galaxy clusters indicate that they still gravitate into tighter structures.  Within our cosmic neighborhood, the main attractor is clearly the Virgo Cluster, which is affecting all galaxies within a 40 million light-year radius. Beyond this, it is the Centaurus Supercluster and the Great Attractor (as part of the larger Laniakea Supercluster) that is tugging at our strings.

By charting this process of attraction that has been taking place over the past 13 billion years, astronomers and cosmologists are able to see just how our Universe has evolved over the course of the majority of its history. With time, and improved instruments that are capable of looking even deeper into the cosmos (such as the James Webb Space Telescope) we are expected to be able to probe even further back towards the beginning of the cosmos.

Charting how our Universe has changed over time not only confirms our cosmological models and verifies predominant theories about how matter behaves on the largest of scales (i.e. General Relativity). It also allows scientists to predict the future of our Universe with a fair degree of certainty, modelling how galaxies and superclusters will eventually come together to form even larger structures.

The team also created a video showing the results of their study, as well as an interactive model that let’s users examine the frame of reference from multiple vantage points. Be sure to check out the video below, and head on over to the UH page to access their interactive model.

Further Reading: University of Hawaii, The Astrophysical Journal

Messier 58 – the NGC 4579 Barred Spiral Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the barred spiral galaxy, Messier 58.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to serve a more important function, becoming one of the first catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the intermediate barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 58, which is located approximately 68 million light years away in the Virgo constellation. In addition to being one of just four barred spiral galaxies in the Messier Catalog, it is also one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster. Due to its proximity in the sky to other objects in the Virgo Galaxy Field, it can be seen only with the help of a telescope or a pair of large binoculars.

Description:

This beautiful old barred spiral galaxy located approximately 68 million light-years from Earth. Although it might appear pretty plain, it has some great things going for it… namely an active galactic nucleus. As Marcella Contini indicated in a 2004 study:

“We have modelled the low-luminosity active galactic nuclei (AGN) NGC 4579 by explaining both the continuum and the line spectra observed with different apertures. It was found that the nuclear emission is dominated by an AGN such that the flux from the active centre (AC) is relatively low compared with that of the narrow emission-line region (NLR) of Seyfert galaxies. However, the contribution of a young starburst cannot be neglected, as well as that of shock-dominated clouds with velocities of 100, 300 and 500kms-1. A small contribution from an older starburst with an age of 4.5 Myr, probably located in the external nuclear region, is also found. HII regions appear in the extended regions, where radiation and shock-dominated clouds prevail.

“The continuum SED of NGC 4579 is characterized by the strong flux from an old stellar population. Emissions in the radio range show synchrotron radiation from the base of the jet outflowing from the accretion disc within 0.1 pc from the active centre. Radio emission within intermediate distances is explained by the bremsstrahlung from gas downstream of low-velocity shocks reached by a relatively low radiation flux from the AC. In extended regions the radio emission is synchrotron radiation created by the Fermi mechanism at the shock front. The shocks are created by collision of clouds with the jet. All types of emissions observed at different radius from the centre can be reconciled with the presence of the jet.”

The Messier 58 barred spiral galaxy. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Yet where is this gas traveling to and why? According to 2014 study by S. Garcia-Burillo (et al):

“We created a complete gravity torque map of the disk of the LINER/Seyfert 1.9 galaxy NGC 4579. We quantify the efficiency of angular momentum transport and search for signatures of secular evolution in the fueling process from r ~ 15 kpc down to the inner r ~ 50 pc around the active galactic nucleus (AGN). The derived gravity torque budget in NGC 4579 shows that inward gas flow is occurring on different spatial scales in the disk. In the outer disk, the decoupling of the spiral allows the gas to efficiently populate the UHR region, and thus produce net gas inflow on intermediate scales. The co rotation barrier seems to be overcome by secular evolution processes. The gas in the inner disk is efficiently funneled by gravity torques down to r ~ 300 pc. Closer to the AGN, gas feels negative torques due to the combined action of the large-scale bar and the inner oval. The two m=2 modes act in concert to produce net gas inflow down to r ~ 50 pc, providing clear smoking gun evidence of inward gas transport on short dynamical timescales.”

What causes inward transport of gases? Why, a massive gravity pull of course. And what could be more gravitational attractive than a black hole! As Eliot Quataert (et al) indicated in their 1999 study:

“M81 and NGC 4579 are two of the few low-luminosity active galactic nuclei which have an estimated mass for the central black hole, detected hard X-ray emission, and detected optical/UV emission. In contrast to the canonical “big blue bump,” both have optical/UV spectra which decrease with increasing frequency in a plot. Barring significant reddening by dust and/or large errors in the black hole mass estimates, the optical/UV spectra of these systems require that the inner edge of a geometrically thin, optically thick, accretion disk lies at roughly 100 Schwarzschild radii. The observed X-ray radiation can be explained by an optically thin, two temperature, advection-dominated accretion flow at smaller radii.”

Galaxy NGC 4579 was captured by the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Survey (SINGS) Legacy Project using the Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC). In this image, the red structures are areas where gas and dust are thought to be forming new stars, while the blue light comes from mature stars. This SINGS image is a four-channel, false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.

Messier 58 (NGC 4579), as imaged by the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Survey (SINGS) Legacy Project using the Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team

History of Observation:

When Charles Messier discovered this one on April 15, 1779, I’m sure he didn’t know he was looking back into time when he wrote:

“Very faint nebula discovered in Virgo, almost on the same parallel as Epsilon, 3rd mag. The slightest light for illuminating the micrometer wires makes it disappear. M. Messier reported it on the chart of the Comet of 1779, which is located in the volume of the Academy for the same year.”

Messier 58 may not have been a comet, but it certainly was another distant cousin of our own Milky Way!

Locating Messier 58:

Finding M58 requires a telescope or large binoculars, and lots of patience. Because the Virgo Galaxy field contains so many galaxies which can easily be misidentified, it is sometimes easier to “hop” from one galaxy to the next! In this case, we need to start by locating bright Vindemiatrix (Epsilon Virginis) almost due east of Denebola. Let’s hop four and a half degrees west and a shade north of Epsilon to locate one of the largest elliptical galaxies presently known – M60.

At a little brighter than magnitude 9, this galaxy could be spotted with binoculars, but stick with your telescope. In the same low power field (depending on aperture size) you may also note faint NGC 4647 which only appears to be interacting with M60. Also in the field to the west (the direction of drift) is our next Messier, bright cored elliptical M59. Now we will need to continue about an average eyepiece field of view, or a degree further west of this group to bring you to our “galactic twin”, fainter M58.

The location of M58, in the direction of the Virgo constellation. Credit: IAU

In a smaller telescope, do not expect to see much. What will appear at low power is a tiny egg-shaped patch of contrast change. As aperture increases, so does detail and a bright nucleus will begin to appear as you move into the 4-6″ size range and dark sky locations. As with all galaxies, dark skies are a must!

And here are the quick facts on this object to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 58
Alternative Designations: M58, NGC 4579
Object Type: SBc Galaxy
Constellation: Virgo
Right Ascension: 12 : 37.7 (h:m)
Declination: +11 : 49 (deg:m)
Distance: 60000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 9.7 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 5.5×4.5 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab 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.

Sources:

What Are Cosmic Voids?

What Are Cosmic Voids?


Clearly I need to learn to be more specific when I write these articles. Everything time I open my mouth, I need to prepare for the collective imagination of the viewers.

We did a whole article about the biggest things in the Universe, and identified superclusters of galaxies as the best candidate. Well, the part of superclusters actually gravitationally bound enough to eventually merge together in the future. But you had other ideas, including dark energy, or the Universe itself as the biggest thing. Even love? Aww.

One intriguing suggestion, though, is the idea of the vast cosmic voids between galaxies. Hmm, is the absence of something a thing? Whoa, time to go to art school and talk about negative space.

Ah well, who cares? It’s a super interesting topic, so let’s go ahead and talk about voids.

When most people imagine the expansion of the Universe after the Big Bang, they probably envision an equally spaced smattering of galaxies zipping away from one another. And that’s pretty accurate at the smallest scales.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

But at the largest scales, like when you can see billions of light-years in a cube that fits on your computer screen, then a larger structure starts to take shape.

It looks less like an explosion, and more like a tasty tasty sponge cake, with huge filaments, walls, and the vast gaps in between. The gaps, the voids, the supervoids, are the point of today’s article, but to understand the gaps, we’ve got to understand why the Universe is clumped up the way it is.

Run the Universe clock backwards, all the way to the beginning, to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. When the entire cosmos was compressed down into a tiny region of superheated plasma.

Although it was mostly uniform in density, there were slight variations – quantum fluctuations in spacetime itself. And as the Universe expanded, those differences were magnified. What started out as tiny differences in the density of matter at the smallest scale, turned into regions of higher and lower density of matter in the Universe.

Here we are, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and we can see how the microscopic variations at the beginning of time were magnified to the largest scales. Instead of individual galaxies, we see huge walls containing thousands of galaxies; filaments of galaxies connect in nodes. These structures are huge; hundreds of millions of light-years across, containing thousands of galaxies. But the gaps, the voids, between these clusters can be even larger.

Astronomers first started thinking about these voids back in the 1970s, when the first large-scale surveys of the Universe were made. By measuring the redshift of galaxies, and determining how fast they were speeding away from us, astronomers started to realize that the distribution of galaxies wasn’t even.

Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO
Red-shifted galaxies. Credit: ESO

Some galaxies were relatively close, but then there were huge gaps in distance, and then another cluster of galaxies collected together.

Over the last few decades, astronomers have built sophisticated 3-dimensional models that map out the Universe in the largest scales. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, updated in 2009, has provided the most accurate map so far. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, destined for first light in a few years will take this to the next level.

The largest void that we currently know of is known as the Giant Void (original, I know), and it’s located about 1.5 billion light-year away. It has a diameter of 1 billion to 1.3 billion light-years across.

To be fair, these regions aren’t really completely empty. They just have less density than the regions with galaxies. In general, they’ve got about a tenth the density of matter that’s average for the Universe.

Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Galaxy MCG+01-02-015 is so isolated that if our galaxy, the Milky Way, were to be situated in the same way, we would not have known of the existence of other galaxies until the 1960s
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin (STScI). Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Which means that there’s still gas and dust in these regions, as well as dark matter. There will still be stars and galaxies out in the middle of those voids. Even the Giant Void has 17 separate galaxy clusters inside it.

You might imagine continuing to scale outward. Maybe you’re wondering if the this spongy distribution of matter is actually just the next step to an even larger structure, and so on, and so on. But it isn’t. In fact, astronomers call this “the End of Greatness”, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any larger structure to the Universe.

As the expansion of the Universe continues, these voids are going to get even larger. The walls and filaments connecting clusters of galaxies will stretch and break. The voids will merge with each other, and only gravitationally bound galaxy clusters will remain as islands, adrift in the expanding emptiness.

The full scale of the observable Universe is truly mind boggling. We’re here in this tiny corner of the Local Group, which is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is perched on the precipice of vast cosmic voids. So much to explore, so let’s get to work.

What Is The Biggest Thing in The Universe?

Think big. Really big. Like, cosmic big. How big can things in the Universe get? Is a galaxy big? What about a supercluster? What is the biggest thing in the Universe?

Our observable Universe is a sphere 96 billion light-years across, and the entire Universe might be infinite in size. Which is a hoarders dream walk-in closet space stuffed full of “things”. It’s loaded down with so much stuff, we’ve even given up naming things individually and now just spew out a list of letters and numbers to try and keep track of it all.

So, as is traditional, in a fit of adolescent OCD and one-upmanship reserved generally for things like tanks, planes and guns, we’re drawn to the question… What’s the biggest thing in the Universe. Well, 14 year old Fraser Cain, put down your copy of “Weapons and Warfare Volume 3” which you picked up at the dollar store as part of an incomplete set, as this is going to get a little tricky.

It all depends on what you mean by a “thing”. The biggest physical object is probably a star. The largest possible red giant star could be as big as 2,100 times the size our Sun. Placed inside our own Solar System, a monster star like this would extend out past the orbit of Saturn. That’s big, but we might be able to get even bigger if we’re willing to get past the idea that a “thing” has to be a homogeneous physical object.

Consider the regions around supermassive black holes. Within our own galaxy, things are pretty quiet, but around actively feeding black holes, there can be disks of material with such temperature and density that they act like the core of a star, fusing hydrogen into helium. Which, purely based on high volumetric density of pure awesome, I’m going to call a thing. An accretion disk around a quasar could be light days across, extending well past the orbit of Pluto and killing us all, if you dumped it in our Solar System.

If we’re going to be all philosophical about what constitutes a “thing” and you’re not all fussy about physical structure and just want a collection of material held together by gravity, then we can really can make some leaps and bounds in our “who’s got the biggest” measuring contest. Our own galaxy extends up to 120,000 light-years across.

There are much larger galaxies, ones that make the Milky Way look like that cat leash pendant from Men In Black 2. And ours is just one contained within a much larger cluster of galaxies known, rather unimaginatively, as the Local Group. Don’t let the centrist name fool you, this cluster contains around 50 galaxies and measures more than 10 million light-years across.

Partial map of the Local Group of galaxies.  Credit:  Planet Quest
Partial map of the Local Group of galaxies. Credit: Planet Quest

And we’re just getting started. The Local Group is one part of the Virgo Supercluster. A massive galactic structure that measures 110 million light-years apart. In 2014, astronomers announced that the Virgo Supercluster is just one lobe of an even larger structure, beautifully known as Laniakea, or “Immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian. The name originated from Nawa’a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language at Kapiolani Community College. It honors the Polynesian sailors using “heavenly knowledge” navigating the Pacific Ocean, reminding us that romance is still alive and well in space and astronomy. Laniakea is centered around the Great Attractor – a mysterious source of gravity drawing galaxies towards it.

I almost forgot about our size contest. So who’s got the biggest space thing? According to buzzkill Ethan Siegel from the Starts With a Bang blog, you can’t actually have a structure that’s as big as Laniakea, and call it a thing. The fine-print reality is that the expansion of the Universe is being accelerated by dark energy. These galaxies are being pushed apart by dark energy faster than gravity can pull them together. So they’d never be able to form into a single object given enough time.

In other words, the largest possible object is a collection of galaxies at the exact size where gravity is just strong enough to overcome the expansive force of dark energy. Beyond that, everything’s getting spread apart, and it’s for our purposes we’re actually going to draw a line and say it’s not quite right to call it a thing. Unless you’d suggest a giant expanse of nothing is a thing… but let’s save that for another episode.

So what do you think? Do you feel like it’s right to call superclusters like Laniakea “a structure”?

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.

What is the Milky Way?

Artist's conception of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Nick Risinger

When you look up at the night sky, assuming conditions are just right, you might just catch a glimpse of a faint, white band reaching across the heavens. This band, upon closer observation, looks speckled and dusty, filled with a million tiny points of light and halos of glowing matter. What you are seeing is the Milky Way, something that astronomers and stargazers alike have been staring up at since the beginning of time.

But just what is the Milky Way? Well, simply put, it is the name of the barred spiral galaxy in which our solar system is located. The Earth orbits the Sun in the Solar System, and the Solar System is embedded within this vast galaxy of stars. It is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, and ours is called the Milky Way because the disk of the galaxy appears to be spanning the night sky like a hazy band of glowing white light.

Discovery and Naming:

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.”

The Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomer Michael Hart, and cosmologist Frank Tipler propose that extraterrestrials would colonize every available planet. Since they aren't here, they have proposed that extraterrestrials don't exist. Sagan was able to imagine a broader range of possibilities. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Milky Way Galaxy, as seen from above the galactic “North pole”. Credit: NASA

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 of stars would be rotating and flattened out as a disk, with the Solar System embedded within it. Astronomer William Herschel (who discovered Uranus) attempted to actually map out the shape of the Milky Way 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.

Structure and Composition:

The Milky Way looks brightest toward the galactic center, in the direction of Sagittarius. 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.

a mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release.
A mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Credit: NASA/JPL

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 measuring about 120,000 light-years across and about 1,000 light-years thick. 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. 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 – and are not the result of seeing our galaxy as a whole.

In truth, all pictures that depict our galaxy are either artist’s renditions or pictures of other spiral galaxies. Until recently, it was very difficult for scientists to gauge what the Milky Way looks like, mainly because we’re embedded inside it. If you had never been outside of your own house, you wouldn’t know what it looked like from outside. But you’d get a sense by looking at the interior and comparing it to other houses in the neighborhood.

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 – and at least 17 billion of those are believed to be the size and mass of the Earth.

Illustris simulation, showing the distribution of dark matter in 350 million by 300,000 light years. Galaxies are shown as high-density white dots (left) and as normal, baryonic matter (right). Credit: Markus Haider/Illustris
Illustris simulation, showing the distribution of dark matter in 350 million by 300,000 light years. Galaxies are shown as high-density white dots (left) and as normal, baryonic matter (right). Credit: Markus Haider/Illustris

The Milky Way, like all galaxies, is 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.

Location of our Sun:

Our Sun is located in the Orion Arm, a region of space in between the two major arms of the Milky Way, and about 27,000 light years from the galactic core. At the heart of the Milky Way is a super-massive black hole, just like all of the other galaxies, known as Sagittarius A*. This monster is more than 4 million times

Our Sun takes about 240 million years to orbit the Milky Way once, in what is known as a galactic year (or cosmic year). Just imagine, the last time the Sun was at this region of the galaxy, dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and the Sun has only made an estimated 18-20 trips around in its entire life. By this reckoning, the birth of our Sun took place 18.4 galactic years ago, and the Universe itself was created approximately 61 galactic years ago.

Future of the Milky Way:

It is further believed that our galaxy formed through the collisions of smaller galaxies, early in the Universe. These mergers are still going on, and the Milky Way is expected to collide with the Andromeda galaxy in 3-4 billion years. The two galaxies will combine to form a giant elliptical galaxy, and their super-massive black holes might even merge.

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

The Milky Way and Andromeda are part of a larger collection of galaxies known as the Local Group. And these are contained within an even larger region called the Virgo Supercluster – a mass concentration of galaxies that contains at least 100 galaxy groups and clusters within its diameter of 33 megaparsecs (110 million light-years).

You might be amazed to know that dung beetles actually navigate at night using the Milky Way. If you’ve never seen the Milky Way with your own eyes, you should take the chance when you can. Go to a place with nice dark skies, free from light pollution, and look up and appreciate the Milky Way. And be sure to wave hello to all the neighboring stars who share our galaxy with us.

Those are just a few of the interesting facts, figures, and images that you will find among the links below.