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3.8: Milky Way Galaxy

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  • Image of the night sky above Paranal on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the Galaxy we belong to. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. Three of the four 8.2-m telescopes forming ESO's VLT are seen, with a laser beaming out from Yepun, Unit Telescope number 4. The laser points directly at the Galactic Centre. Also visible are three of the 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes used for interferometry. They show small light beams which are diodes located on the domes. The exposure time is 5 minutes and because the tracking was made on the stars, the telescopes are slightly blurred.On a dark, clear night, you will see a milky band of light stretching across the sky. This band is the disk of a galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, is our galaxy and is made of millions of stars along with a lot of gas and dust.

    Shape and Size

    Although it is difficult to know what the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy is because we are inside of it, astronomers have identified it as a typical spiral galaxy containing about 100 billion to 400 billion stars.

    Artist's conception of the spiral structure of the Milky Way with two major stellar arms and a central bar. "Using infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists have discovered that the Milky Way's elegant spiral structure is dominated by just two arms wrapping off the ends of a central bar of stars. Previously, our galaxy was thought to possess four major arms."

    Like other spiral galaxies, our galaxy has a disk, a central bulge, and spiral arms. The disk is about 100,000 light-years across and 3,000 light-years thick. Most of the Galaxy’s gas, dust, young stars, and open clusters are in the disk. What data and evidence do astronomers find that lets them know that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy?

    1. The shape of the galaxy as we see it.
    2. The velocities of stars and gas in the galaxy show a rotational motion.
    3. The gases, color, and dust are typical of spiral galaxies.

    The central bulge is about 12,000 to 16,000 light-years wide and 6,000 to 10,000 light-years thick. The central bulge contains mostly older stars and globular clusters. Some recent evidence suggests the bulge might not be spherical, but is instead shaped like a bar. The bar might be as long as 27,000 light-years long. The disk and bulge are surrounded by a faint, spherical halo, which also includes old stars and globular clusters. Astronomers have discovered that there is a gigantic black hole at the center of the galaxy.

    Grid added to annotated milky way

    The Milky Way Galaxy is a significant place. Our solar system, including the Sun, Earth, and all the other planets, is within one of the spiral arms in the disk of the Milky Way Galaxy. Most of the stars we see in the sky are relatively nearby stars that are also in this spiral arm. Earth is about 26,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy, a little more than halfway out from the center of the galaxy to the edge.Just as Earth orbits the Sun, the Sun and solar system orbit the center of the Galaxy. One orbit of the solar system takes about 225 to 250 million years. The solar system has orbited 20 to 25 times since it formed 4.6 billion years ago. Astronomers have recently found that at the center of the Milky Way, and most other galaxies, is a supermassive black hole, though a black hole cannot be seen.

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