Milky Way galaxy is ‘warped, twisted’ not flat

07 February, 2019, 15:55 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • NewsScienceThe Milky Way really is warped – like a bent old vinyl record Guest Contributor

A new study by Chinese and Australian astronomers has developed the world's first accurate three-dimensional picture of the Milky Way's warped appearance, showing that the galaxy's disc is not flat but warped and twisted far away from the center.

There are several hundred billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. "However, we recently published a new catalog of well-behaved variable stars known as classical Cepheids, for which distances as accurate as 3 to 5% can be determined", added Dr. Chen Xiaodian from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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.

Further study validated that the stellar warp morphology is in excellent agreement with that of the galaxy's warp.

Cepheids are big and bright young stars.

Previously, astronomers saw evidence of hydrogen clouds becoming warped in the Milky Way. "Combining our results with those other observations, we concluded that the Milky Way's warped spiral pattern is most likely caused by "torques" - or rotational forcing - by the massive inner disk".

Artist impression of a warped Milky Way.

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Astronomers from from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences shared their map in the journal Nature Astronomy.

But as you get further out, the gravity weakens and the gas that makes up the disk doesn't fall neatly into the thin plane that stars closer to the centre do.

"We would need to do (numerical) simulations of a realistic galaxy embedded in a dark matter halo to see if we can reproduce the observations and figure out how this came about", says de Grijs.

"It is notoriously hard to determine distances from the Sun to parts of the Milky Way's outer gas disk without having a clear idea of what that disk actually looks like". The energetic stars pulsate, and by messing the timing of the stellar pulses and the changes in brightness, scientists can accurately measure their distance from Earth and the sun. "This offers new insights into the formation of our home galaxy". They assumed that like the neighboring Andromeda, Milky Way is a neat flat disk with orderly spiral arms.

Now the first accurate 3D map of its kind published in Nature Astronomy reveals they were right.

This finding allowed for an updated map of the galaxy's "stellar motions", says Dr. Deng Licai, senior researcher at NAOC.

A dozen other galaxies with similar progressively twisted spiral patterns in their outer regions have been observed - so the Milky Way's shape is rare but not unique.

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