Milky Way is warped and twisted, not flat

Milky Way is warped and twisted, not flat

Scientists have known since the 1950s that the spiral-shaped Milky Way's disk is warped, bending by thousands of light-years at its outskirts.

Our Milky Way galaxy's disk of stars is anything but stable and flat.

Professor Richard de Grijs, one of the astronomers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said: 'We usually think of spiral galaxies as being quite flat, like Andromeda, which you can easily see through a telescope'.

The 1,339 stars are all Cepheid variables, a type of pulsating star whose intrinsic brightness depends on how long it takes to vary from bright to dim and back again.

In other words, the further the stars, the more spread out they will be. 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. Since a Cepheid's period tells astronomers how bright the star truly is, measuring how bright it appears lets astronomers draw an accurate distance map.

This isn't completely abnormal, because astronomers have noticed the same pattern of progressively twisting spirals in about a dozen other galaxies.

Top: Three-dimensional distribution of the classical Cepheid variable stars in the Milky Way's warped disk (red and blue points) centered on the location of the Sun ( large orange symbol).

Prof de Grijs said: 'Somewhat to our surprise, we found in 3D our collection of 1,339 Cepheid stars and the Milky Way's gas disc follow each other closely.

But the research solidifies something that you might not know about our galaxy-if you picture it as a attractive, flat spiral akin to images of Andromeda, it's time to repaint that picture as a floppy, curved disk of stars and gas.

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This is where hundreds of billions of stars can be found - together with a huge mass of dark matter. But as you move toward the outermost reaches of the galaxy, the gravitational glue of the centre fades.

However, the pull of gravity becomes weaker far away from the Milky Way's inner regions. In the far outer disc hydrogen atoms making up most of the galaxy are no longer confined to a thin plane.

The Milky Way turned out to be progressively twisted in its outer areas, which is most likely caused by the powerful rotating forces released by the galaxy's massive internal disk, according to the research.

The new findings echo observations made over the last half century by scientists which indicated that gas clouds in the outer Milky Way were warped in shape.

"This new morphology provides a crucial updated map for studies of our galaxy's stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way's disk", said Licai Deng, senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A newly discovered star is thought to be one of the oldest in the Milky Way. You can see their final plot in the video below, published in Nature Astronomy.

Scientists at the Instituto de AstrofĂ­sica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain believe that it might have formed about 300 million years after the "Big Bang".

It's the first time that a map was built using young stars - and the first measurement of how twisted our home galaxy is.


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