First 3D map reveals 'true shape' of Milky Way

07 February, 2019, 15:57 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • Milky Way is warped and twisted, not flat

An global team of astronomers have discovered that the Milky Way's disc of stars becomes increasingly "warped" and twisted the further away the stars are from the galaxy's center.

In the centre, hundreds of billions of stars and dark matter hold the galaxy together. Image credit: Xiaodian Chen.

That database provided by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) allowed the team to develop the first accurate three-dimensional picture of our Milky Way out to its far outer regions.

The paper, published in Nature Astronomy on February 4, details work by Australian and Chinese astronomers to examine the classical "Cepheids" - a collection of huge, young stars in the Milky Way that can be up to 100,000 times brighter than the sun. These stars are as much as 100,000 times brighter than Earth's sun and up to 20 times larger.

For the past five decades there have been indications that the hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way Galaxy are warped.

While the recent study focused on making the map, not explaining it, the authors hypothesize that as the Milky Way's inner disk of stars rotates, it drags on the outer disk as well, distorting the flat spiral.

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An artist's impression of the warped and twisted Milky Way disk.

Astronomers from from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences shared their map in the journal Nature Astronomy. Astronomers from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have used 1339 "standard" stars to map the real shape of our home galaxy in a paper published in Nature Astronomy today. They also pulsate radially for days to months at a time - and this period of pulsation can be combined with the Cepheid's brightness to reliably establish its distance from the sun.

"However, we recently published a new catalogue of well-behaved variable stars known as classical Cepheids, for which distances as accurate as 3 to 5 per cent can be determined", Xiaodian Chen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said in a news release. Just like a goldfish can't see its bowl from the outside, our position in the universe means we can't see our home galaxy, the Milky Way, as the rest of the universe sees it. "Perhaps more importantly, in the Milky Way's outer regions, we found that the S-like stellar disk is warped in a progressively twisted spiral pattern", de Grijs added.

The same twisted spiral patterns have been seen before in more than a dozen other galaxies. They assumed that like the neighboring Andromeda, Milky Way is a neat flat disk with orderly spiral arms. Furthermore, they also fit in with observations of a handful of other galaxies that display progressively twisted spiral patterns in their outer regions.

"This new finding may help us to know the shape of the Milky Way, and provide a key clue to understanding how galaxies such as the Milky Way form and evolve", said Deng Licai, co-author of the study.

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