Is the Milky Way getting bigger?

April 2, 2018, Royal Astronomical Society
NGC 4565, a spiral galaxy estimated to be 30-50 million light years away. Credit: Ken Crawford

The galaxy we inhabit, the Milky Way, may be getting even bigger, according to Cristina Martínez-Lombilla, a PhD candidate at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Tenerife, Spain, and her collaborators. She will present the work of her team in a talk on Tuesday 3 April at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool.

The Solar System is located in one of the arms in the disc of a barred we call the Milky Way, with a diameter of about 100,000 light years. Our home galaxy consists of several hundred billion , with huge amounts of gas and dust, all intermingled and interacting through the force of gravity.

The nature of this interaction determines the shape of a galaxy, which may be spiral, elliptical or irregular. As a barred spiral, the Milky Way consists of a disc in which stars, dust, and gas lie mostly in a flat plane, with arms stretching out from a central bar.

In the disc of the Milky Way there are stars of many different ages. Massive, hot, are very luminous and have a relatively short lifespan of millions of years, whereas lower mass stars eventually end up redder and much fainter and may live for hundreds of billions of years. The younger short-lived stars are found in the disc of the galaxy, where new stars continue to form, whereas older stars dominate in the bulge around the galactic centre and in the halo that surrounds the disc.

Composite image of NGC 4565 used in the new study. Credit: C. M. Lombilla / IAC

Some star-forming regions are found at the outer edge of the disc, and models of galaxy formation predict that the will slowly increase the size of the galaxy they reside in. One problem in establishing the shape of the Milky Way is that we live inside it, so astronomers look at similar elsewhere as analogues for our own.

Martínez-Lombilla and her colleagues set out to establish whether other spiral galaxies similar to the Milky Way really are getting bigger, and if so what this means for our own galaxy. She and her team used the ground-based SDSS telescope for optical data, and the two space telescopes GALEX and Spitzer for near-UV and near-infrared data respectively, to look in detail at the colours and the motions of the stars at the end of the disc found in the other galaxies.

The researchers measured the light in these regions, predominantly originating from young blue stars, and measured their vertical movement (up and down from the disc) of the stars to work out how long it will take them to move away from their birthplaces, and how their host galaxies were growing in size.

A composite image of NGC 5907 used in the new study. Credit: C. M. Lombilla / IAC

Based on this, they calculate that galaxies like the Milky Way are growing at around 500 metres per second, fast enough to cover the distance from Liverpool to London in about twelve minutes.

Ms Martínez-Lombilla comments: "The Milky Way is pretty big already. But our work shows that at least the visible part of it is slowly increasing in size, as stars form on the galactic outskirts. It won't be quick, but if you could travel forward in time and look at the galaxy in 3 billion years' time it would be about 5% bigger than today."

This slow growth may be moot in the distant future. The Milky Way is predicted to collide with the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years, and the shape of both will then change radically as they merge.

Explore further: Video: Guide to our Galaxy

Related Stories

Video: Guide to our Galaxy

November 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.

Hubble's majestic spiral in Pegasus

February 5, 2018

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a spiral galaxy known as NGC 7331. First spotted by the prolific galaxy hunter William Herschel in 1784, NGC 7331 is located about 45 million light-years away in the constellation ...

Hubble sees spiral in Andromeda

February 10, 2017

The Andromeda constellation is one of the 88 modern constellations and should not be confused with our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda constellation is home to the pictured galaxy known as NGC 7640.

Hubble peers at a distinctly disorganized dwarf galaxy

April 4, 2016

Despite being less famous than their elliptical and spiral galactic cousins, irregular dwarf galaxies, such as the one captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, are actually one of the most common types of galaxy ...

A spiral galaxy in Hydra

April 9, 2012

(Phys.org) -- This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 4980, a spiral galaxy in the southern constellation of Hydra. The shape of NGC 4980 appears slightly deformed, something which is often a sign of ...

Recommended for you

Powerful flare detected on an M-dwarf star

April 25, 2018

An international team of astronomers reports the finding of ASASSN-18di—a powerful white-light superflare on a previously undetected, mid-type M-dwarf star. The discovery is detailed in a paper published April 12 on the ...

6 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

deksman2
not rated yet Apr 02, 2018
Interesting, though the initial thought that the Milky Way is 100 000 ly's across seems incorrect.
It has been estimated that our galaxy could be 50% bigger:
https://news.rpi....stimated
24volts
not rated yet Apr 04, 2018
It's going to get bigger regardless. If space is really expanding then so are the size of galaxies.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2018
Conclusions from previous observations are not fossils. As more data is collected by increasingly improving instruments. Our conclusions have to change also.

"What was a correction of the ill-defined data from yesterday's research. Becomes the definitive conclusions we hold today. Then, new evidence from new experiments, will prove our present conclusions to be incorrect or misinterpreted.

The hypothesis that our galaxy is expanding. Is a completely different speculation than the hypothesis that the universe of Space/Time is expanding.

Galactic expansion would be a Local Event. Of internal processes and influences within this cluster of galaxies.

The expansion of Space/Time is a universal event of undetermined processes.

For instance, the way you described it 24volt? The tool you use to measure separation, would also be expanding. Resulting in a null-effect.
24volts
not rated yet Apr 04, 2018
I've always been told that matter itself isn't expanding just space. I've also seen that said by a number of people on here that seem to think they are experts on the subject so........
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2018
I am curious about how you define 'expert'?

Too often our egos insist that the only believable experts are those who agree with our opinions?

Certainly true for me! I am constantly reminded that I am no expert. That I can & do confuse hubris for wisdom!

Perhaps I should reconsider the point of debate, 24volts. Why should I accept your opinions as 'expert'?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Apr 05, 2018
I've always been told that matter itself isn't expanding just space. I've also seen that said by a number of people on here that seem to think they are experts on the subject so.......

If you think a bit about the word 'quantum' in quantum mechanics (or google the definition if you're not sure) then you'll eventually figure out why this is the case.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.