Milky Way (Space & Science)

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Milky Way

Milky Way Galaxy, commonly referred to as just the Milky Way, or sometimes simply as the Galaxy, is the galaxy in which the Solar System is located. The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy that is part of the Local Group of galaxies. It is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Its name is a translation of the Latin Via Lactea, in turn translated from the Greek Γαλαξίας (Galaxias), referring to the pale band of light formed by stars in the galactic plane as seen from Earth (see etymology of galaxy).

Some sources hold that, strictly speaking, the term Milky Way should refer exclusively to the band of light that the galaxy forms in the night sky, while the galaxy should receive the full name Milky Way Galaxy, or alternatively the Galaxy. However, it is unclear how widespread this convention is, and the term Milky Way is routinely used in either context.

Appearance from Earth

All the stars that the eye can distinguish in the night sky are part of the Milky Way Galaxy, but aside from these relatively nearby stars, the galaxy appears as a hazy band of white light arching around the entire celestial sphere. The light originates from stars and other material that lie within the galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by dark nebulae. The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness due to the interstellar medium that fills the galactic disk, which prevents us from seeing the bright galactic center. It is thus difficult to see from any urban or suburban location suffering from light pollution. A total integrated magnitude of the whole Milky Way stretching across the night sky has been estimated at −5.0.

The center of the galaxy lies in the direction of Sagittarius, and it is here that the Milky Way looks brightest. From Sagittarius, the Milky Way appears to pass westward through the constellations of Scorpius, Ara, Norma, Triangulum Australe, Circinus, Centaurus, Musca, Crux, Carina, Vela, Puppis, Canis Major, Monoceros, Orion and Gemini, Taurus, Auriga, Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Lacerta, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Sagitta, Aquila, Ophiuchus, Scutum, and back to Sagittarius. The fact that the Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies close to the galactic plane.

The galactic plane is inclined by about 60 degrees to the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth's orbit). Relative to the celestial equator, it passes as far north as the constellation of Cassiopeia and as far south as the constellation of Crux, indicating the high inclination of Earth's equatorial plane and the plane of the ecliptic relative to the galactic plane. The north galactic pole is situated at right ascension 12h 49m, declination +27.4° (B1950) near beta Comae Berenices, and the south galactic pole is near alpha Sculptoris.


The stellar disk of the Milky Way Galaxy is approximately 100,000 light-years (30 kiloparsecs, 9×1017 km) in diameter, and is considered to be, on average, about 1,000 ly (0.3 kpc) thick. It is estimated to contain at least 200 billion stars and possibly up to 400 billion stars, the exact figure depending on the number of very low-mass, or dwarf stars, which are hard to detect, especially more than 300 ly (90 pc) from our sun, and so current estimates of the total number remain highly uncertain. This can be compared to the one trillion (1012) stars of the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy. The stellar disc does not have a sharp edge, a radius beyond which there are no stars. Rather, the number of stars drops smoothly with distance from the centre of the Galaxy. Beyond a radius of roughly 40,000 ly (12 kpc), the number of stars drops much faster with radius, for reasons that are not understood.

Extending beyond the stellar disk is a much thicker disk of gas. Recent observations indicate that the gaseous disk of the Milky Way has a thickness of around 12,000 ly (3.7 kpc)—twice the previously accepted value. As a guide to the relative physical scale of the Milky Way, if the Solar System out to the orbit of Pluto were reduced to the size of a US quarter (approximately one inch in diameter) the Milky Way would be the size of the continental United States west of the Mississippi.

The Galactic Halo extends outward, but is limited in size by the orbits of two Milky Way satellites, the Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds, whose perigalacticon is at about 180,000 ly (55 kpc). At this distance or beyond, the orbits of most halo objects would be disrupted by the Magellanic Clouds, and the objects would likely be ejected from the vicinity of the Milky Way.


In 2007, a star in the Galactic halo, HE 1523-0901, was estimated to be about 13.2 billion years old, nearly as old as the Universe. As the oldest known object in the Milky Way at that time, it placed a lower limit on the age of the Milky Way. This estimate was determined using the UV-Visual Echelle Spectrograph of the Very Large Telescope to measure the relative strengths of spectral lines caused by the presence of Thorium and other elements created by the R-process. The line strengths yield abundances of different elemental isotopes, from which an estimate of the age of the star can be derived using nucleocosmochronology.

The age of stars in the Galactic thin disk can be estimated in the same way as HE 1523-0901. Measurements of thin disk stars yield an estimate that the thin disk formed between 8.8 ± 1.7 billion years ago. These measurements suggest there was a hiatus of almost 5 billion years between the formation of the Galactic halo and the thin disk.

Composition and structure

The galaxy consists of a bar-shaped core region surrounded by a disk of gas, dust and stars forming four distinct arm structures spiralling outward in a logarithmic spiral shape (see Spiral arms). The mass distribution within the galaxy closely resembles the Sbc Hubble classification, which is a spiral galaxy with relatively loosely wound arms. Astronomers first began to suspect that the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy, rather than an ordinary spiral galaxy, in the 1990s. Their suspicions were confirmed by the Spitzer Space Telescope observations in 2005 which showed the galaxy's central bar to be larger than previously suspected.

Estimates for the mass of the Milky Way vary, depending upon the method and data used. Recent estimates at the low end have placed the mass of the Milky Way at 5.8×1011 solar masses (M☉), somewhat smaller than the Andromeda Galaxy. Other measurements by the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) have found velocities as large as 254 km/s for stars at the edge of the Milky Way, higher than the previously accepted value of 220 km/s. As the orbital velocity depends on the mass enclosed, this implies that the Milky Way is more massive, roughly equaling the mass of Andromeda Galaxy at 7×1011 M☉ within 50 kiloparsecs (160,000 ly) of its center. A recent measurement of the radial velocity of halo stars finds the mass enclosed within 80 kiloparsecs is 7×1011 solar masses. Most of the mass of the galaxy is thought to be dark matter, which forms a dark matter halo that is spread out relatively uniformly to a distance beyond one hundred kiloparsecs from the Galactic center. The overall mass of the entire galaxy is estimated at 600–1000 billion M☉

This mass in baryonic matter is estimated to include 200 to 400 billion stars. Its integrated absolute visual magnitude has been estimated to be −20.9

Galactic Center

The galactic disc, which bulges outward at the galactic center, has a diameter of 70,000–100,000 light-years (20–30 kpc). The exact distance from the Sun to the galactic center is actively debated. The latest estimates from geometric-based methods and standard candles yield distances to the Galactic center of 7.6–8.7 kpc (25,000–28,000 ly). The fact that the estimates span over 1 kpc only underscores the true uncertainty associated with the distance to the Galactic center.

The galactic center harbors a compact object of very large mass as determined by the motion of material around the center. The intense radio source named Sagittarius A*, thought to mark the center of the Milky Way, is newly confirmed to be a supermassive black hole. Most galaxies are believed to have a supermassive black hole at their center.

The nature of the galaxy's bar is also actively debated, with estimates for its half-length and orientation spanning from 1–5 kpc (3,300–16,000 ly) (short or a long bar) and 10–50 degrees. Certain authors advocate that the Galaxy features two distinct bars, one nestled within the other. The bar is delineated by red clump stars (see also red giant), however, RR Lyr variables do not trace a prominent Galactic bar. The bar may be surrounded by a ring called the "5-kpc ring" that contains a large fraction of the molecular hydrogen present in the galaxy, as well as most of the Milky Way's star formation activity. Viewed from the Andromeda Galaxy, it would be the brightest feature of our own galaxy


The galactic disk is surrounded by a spheroid halo of old stars and globular clusters, of which 90% lie within 100,000 light-years (30 kpc), suggesting a stellar halo diameter of 200,000 light-years. However, a few globular clusters have been found farther, such as PAL 4 and AM1 at more than 200,000 light-years away from the galactic center. About 40% of these clusters are on retrograde orbits, which means they move in the opposite direction from the Milky Way rotation. The globular clusters can follow rosette orbits about the galaxy, in contrast to the elliptical orbit of a planet.

While the disk contains gas and dust which obscure the view in some wavelengths, the spheroid component does not. Active star formation takes place in the disk (especially in the spiral arms, which represent areas of high density), but not in the halo. Open clusters also occur primarily in the disk.

Discoveries in the early 21st century have added dimension to the knowledge of the Milky Way's structure. With the discovery that the disk of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) extends much further than previously thought, the possibility of the disk of the Milky Way galaxy extending further is apparent, and this is supported by evidence from the discovery of the Outer Arm extension of the Cygnus Arm. With the discovery of the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy came the discovery of a ribbon of galactic debris as the polar orbit of the dwarf and its interaction with the Milky Way tears it apart. Similarly, with the discovery of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, it was found that a ring of galactic debris from its interaction with the Milky Way encircles the galactic disk.

On January 9, 2006, Mario Jurić and others of Princeton University announced that the Sloan Digital Sky Survey of the northern sky found a huge and diffuse structure (spread out across an area around 5,000 times the size of a full moon) within the Milky Way that does not seem to fit within current models. The collection of stars rises close to perpendicular to the plane of the spiral arms of the galaxy. The proposed likely interpretation is that a dwarf galaxy is merging with the Milky Way. This galaxy is tentatively named the Virgo Stellar Stream and is found in the direction of Virgo about 30,000 light-years (9 kpc) away.


As Aristotle (384-322 BC) informs us in Meteorologica (DK 59 A80), the Greek philosophers Anaxagoras (ca. 500–428 BC) and Democritus (450–370 BC) proposed the Milky Way might consist of distant stars. However, Aristotle himself believed the Milky Way to be caused by "the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together" and that the "ignition takes place in the upper part of the atmosphere, in the region of the world which is continuous with the heavenly motions." The Neoplatonist philosopher Olympiodorus the Younger (c. 495-570 A.D.) criticized this view, arguing that if the Milky Way were sublunary it should appear different at different times and places on the Earth, and that it should have parallax, which it does not. In his view, the Milky Way was celestial. This idea would be influential later in the Islamic world.

The Arabian astronomer, Alhazen (965-1037 AD), refuted this by making the first attempt at observing and measuring the Milky Way's parallax, and he thus "determined that because the Milky Way had no parallax, it was very remote from the earth and did not belong to the atmosphere."

The Persian astronomer Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (973-1048) proposed the Milky Way galaxy to be a collection of countless nebulous stars. The Andalusian astronomer Avempace (d. 1138) proposed the Milky Way to be made up of many stars but appears to be a continuous image due to the effect of refraction in the Earth's atmosphere, citing his observation of a conjunction of Jupiter and Mars in 1106 or 1107 as evidence. Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (1292–1350) proposed the Milky Way galaxy to be "a myriad of tiny stars packed together in the sphere of the fixed stars" and that that these stars are larger than planets.

Actual proof of the Milky Way consisting of many stars came in 1610 when Galileo Galilei used a telescope to study the Milky Way and discovered that it was composed of a huge number of faint stars. In a treatise in 1755, Immanuel Kant, drawing on earlier work by Thomas Wright, speculated (correctly) that the Milky Way might be a rotating body of a huge number of stars, held together by gravitational forces akin to the Solar System but on much larger scales. The resulting disk of stars would be seen as a band on the sky from our perspective inside the disk. Kant also conjectured that some of the nebulae visible in the night sky might be separate "galaxies" themselves, similar to our own. Kant referred to both our galaxy and the "extragalactic nebulae" as "island universes", a term still current up to the 1930s.

The first attempt to describe the shape of the Milky Way and the position of the Sun within it was carried out by William Herschel in 1785 by carefully counting the number of stars in different regions of the visible sky. He produced a diagram of the shape of the Galaxy with the Solar System close to the center.

In 1845, Lord Rosse constructed a new telescope and was able to distinguish between elliptical and spiral-shaped nebulae. He also managed to make out individual point sources in some of these nebulae, lending credence to Kant's earlier conjecture.

In 1917, Heber Curtis had observed the nova S Andromedae within the "Great Andromeda Nebula" (Messier object M31). Searching the photographic record, he found 11 more novae. Curtis noticed that these novae were, on average, 10 magnitudes fainter than those that occurred within our galaxy. As a result he was able to come up with a distance estimate of 150,000 parsecs. He became a proponent of the "island universes" hypothesis, which held that the spiral nebulae were actually independent galaxies. In 1920 the Great Debate took place between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, concerning the nature of the Milky Way, spiral nebulae, and the dimensions of the universe. To support his claim that the Great Andromeda Nebula was an external galaxy, Curtis noted the appearance of dark lanes resembling the dust clouds in the Milky Way, as well as the significant Doppler shift.

The matter was conclusively settled by Edwin Hubble in the early 1920s using a new telescope. He was able to resolve the outer parts of some spiral nebulae as collections of individual stars and identified some Cepheid variables, thus allowing him to estimate the distance to the nebulae: they were far too distant to be part of the Milky Way. In 1936, Hubble produced a classification system for galaxies that is used to this day, the Hubble sequence.


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