Astrophysicists map the Milky Way's 4 spiral arms

Jan 05, 2009

Iowa State University's Martin Pohl is part of a research team that has developed the first complete map of the Milky Way galaxy's spiral arms. The map shows the inner part of the Milky Way has two prominent, symmetric spiral arms, which extend into the outer galaxy where they branch into four spiral arms.

"For the first time these arms are mapped over the entire Milky Way," said Pohl, an Iowa State associate professor of physics and astronomy. "The branching of two of the arms may explain why previous studies - using mainly the inner or mainly the outer galaxy - have found conflicting numbers of spiral arms."

The new map was developed by Pohl, Peter Englmaier of the University of Zurich in Switzerland and Nicolai Bissantz of Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany.

As the sun and other stars revolve around the center of the Milky Way, researchers cannot see the spiral arms directly, but have to rely on indirect evidence to find them. In the visible light, the Milky Way appears as an irregular, densely populated strip of stars. Dark clouds of dust obscure the galaxy's central region so it cannot be observed in visible light.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite was able to map the Milky Way in infrared light using an instrument called the Diffuse IR Background Experiment. The infrared light makes the dust clouds almost fully transparent.

Englmaier and Bissantz used the infrared data from the satellite to develop a kinematic model of gas flow in the inner galaxy. Pohl used the model to reconstruct the distribution of molecular gas in the galaxy. And that led to the researchers' map of the galaxy's spiral arms.

The Milky Way is the best studied galaxy in the universe because other galaxies are too far away for detailed observations. And so studies of the galaxy are an important reference point for the interpretation of other galaxies.

Astrophysicists know that the stars in the Milky Way are distributed as a disk with a central bulge dominated by a long bar-shaped arrangement of stars. Outside this central area, stars are located along spiral arms.

In addition to the two main spiral arms in the inner galaxy, two weaker arms exist. These arms end about 10,000 light-years from the galaxy's center. (The sun is located about 25,000 light-years from the galactic center.) One of these arms has been known for a long time, but has always been a mystery because of its large deviation from circular motion. The new model explains the deviation as a result of alternations to its orbit caused by the bar's gravitational pull. The other, symmetric arm on the far side of the galaxy was recently found in gas data.

The discovery of this second arm was a great relief for Englmaier: "Finally it is clear that our model assumption of symmetry was correct and the inner galaxy is indeed quite symmetric in structure."

Other scientific groups are already interested in using the new map for their research. A group from France, for example, hopes to use it in their search for dark matter.

Source: Iowa State University

Explore further: Gravitational waves according to Planck

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How Paramecium protozoa claw their way to the top

Sep 19, 2014

The ability to swim upwards – towards the sun and food supplies – is vital for many aquatic microorganisms. Exactly how they are able to differentiate between above and below in often murky waters is ...

Exploring the cosmic X-ray background

Sep 12, 2014

You are likely familiar with the cosmic microwave background. This background is a thermal remnant of the big bang. Because of the expansion of the universe, this remnant energy has a temperature of about ...

Swirling electrons in the whirlpool galaxy

Aug 20, 2014

The whirlpool galaxy Messier 51 (M51) is seen from a distance of approximately 30 million light years. This galaxy appears almost face-on and displays a beautiful system of spiral arms.

Triangulum galaxy snapped by VST

Aug 06, 2014

The VLT Survey Telescope at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile has captured a beautifully detailed image of the galaxy Messier 33. This nearby spiral, the second closest large galaxy to our own galaxy, is ...

Image: Hubble serves a slice of stars

Jul 31, 2014

The thin, glowing streak slicing across this image cuts a lonely figure, with only a few foreground stars and galaxies in the distant background for company.

Image: Our flocculent neighbour, the spiral galaxy M33

Jul 28, 2014

The spiral galaxy M33, also known as the Triangulum Galaxy, is one of our closest cosmic neighbours, just three million light-years away. Home to some forty billion stars, it is the third largest in the ...

Recommended for you

Image: NGC 6872 in the constellation of Pavo

3 hours ago

This picture, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), shows a galaxy known as NGC 6872 in the constellation of Pavo (The Peacock). Its unusual shape is caused ...

Measuring the proper motion of a galaxy

4 hours ago

The motion of a star relative to us can be determined by measuring two quantities, radial motion and proper motion. Radial motion is the motion of a star along our line of sight. That is, motion directly ...

Gravitational waves according to Planck

20 hours ago

Scientists of the Planck collaboration, and in particular the Trieste team, have conducted a series of in-depth checks on the discovery recently publicized by the Antarctic Observatory, which announced last ...

Infant solar system shows signs of windy weather

21 hours ago

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have observed what may be the first-ever signs of windy weather around a T Tauri star, an infant analog of our own Sun. This may help ...

Finding hints of gravitational waves in the stars

Sep 22, 2014

Scientists have shown how gravitational waves—invisible ripples in the fabric of space and time that propagate through the universe—might be "seen" by looking at the stars. The new model proposes that ...

How gamma ray telescopes work

Sep 22, 2014

Yesterday I talked about the detection of gamma ray bursts, intense blasts of gamma rays that occasionally appear in distant galaxies. Gamma ray bursts were only detected when gamma ray satellites were put ...

User comments : 0