Massive stars mark out Milky Way's 'missing' arms

Dec 17, 2013
This shows the distribution of massive stars in the new study. Our location within the Galaxy is circled in black. Credit: J. Urquhart et al. Background image by Robert Hurt of the Spitzer Science Center.

A 12-year study of massive stars has reaffirmed that our Galaxy has four spiral arms, following years of debate sparked by images taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope that only showed two arms.

The new research, which is published online today [17 December] in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is part of the RMS Survey, which was launched by academics at the University of Leeds.

Astronomers cannot see what our Galaxy, which is called the Milky Way, looks like because we are on the inside looking out. But they can deduce its shape by careful observation of its stars and their distances from us.

"The Milky Way is our galactic home and studying its structure gives us a unique opportunity to understand how a very typical spiral galaxy works in terms of where stars are born and why," said Professor Melvin Hoare, a member of the RMS Survey Team in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the research paper.

In the 1950s astronomers used radio telescopes to map our Galaxy. Their observations focussed on clouds of gas in the Milky Way in which new stars are born, revealing four major arms. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, on the other hand, scoured the Galaxy for infrared light emitted by stars. It was announced in 2008 that Spitzer had found about 110 million stars, but only evidence of two .

The astronomers behind the new study used several radio telescopes in Australia, USA and China to individually observe about 1650 that had been identified by the RMS Survey. From their observations, the distances and luminosities of the massive stars were calculated, revealing a distribution across four spiral arms.

"It isn't a case of our results being right and those from Spitzer's data being wrong – both surveys were looking for different things," said Professor Hoare. "Spitzer only sees much cooler, lower mass stars – stars like our Sun – which are much more numerous than the massive stars that we were targeting."

Massive stars are much less common than their lower mass counterparts because they only live for a short time – about 10 million years. The shorter lifetimes of massive stars means that they are only found in the arms in which they formed, which could explain the discrepancy in the number of galactic arms that different research teams have claimed.

"Lower mass stars live much longer than massive stars and rotate around our Galaxy many times, spreading out in the disc. The gravitational pull in the two stellar arms that Spitzer revealed is enough to pile up the majority of stars in those arms, but not in the other two," explains Professor Hoare. "However, the gas is compressed enough in all four arms to lead to massive star formation."

Dr James Urquhart from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and lead author of the paper, said: "It's exciting that we are able to use the distribution of young massive stars to probe the structure of the Milky Way and match the most intense region of star formation with a model with four spiral arms."

Professor Hoare concludes, "Star formation researchers, like me, grew up with the idea that our Galaxy has four spiral . It's great that we have been able to reaffirm that picture."

Explore further: Hubble view of a special spiral galaxy

More information: mnras.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/11/13/mnras.stt2006

Related Stories

Hubble view of a special spiral galaxy

Oct 24, 2013

(Phys.org) —The image, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows part of NGC 3621, an unusual spiral galaxy located over 20 million light-years away in the constellation of Hydra (The Water ...

Hubble eyes a loose spiral galaxy

Nov 26, 2012

(Phys.org)—The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted the spiral galaxy ESO 499-G37, seen here against a backdrop of distant galaxies, scattered with nearby stars.

Video: Guide to our Galaxy

Nov 22, 2013

This virtual journey shows the different components that make up our home galaxy, the Milky Way, which contains about a hundred billion stars.

Pinwheeling across the sky

Jun 11, 2013

(Phys.org) —The face-on Pinwheel spiral galaxy is seen at ultraviolet wavelengths in this image taken by ESA's XMM-Newton space telescope.

Recommended for you

Quest for extraterrestrial life not over, experts say

22 hours ago

The discovery of an Earth-sized planet in the "habitable" zone of a distant star, though exciting, is still a long way from pointing to the existence of extraterrestrial life, experts said Friday. ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Apr 18, 2014

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Exoplanets soon to gleam in the eye of NESSI

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI) will soon get its first "taste" of exoplanets, helping astronomers decipher their chemical composition. Exoplanets are planets ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...