It turns out the Milky Way is ‘warped’

A slightly exaggerated impression of the real shape of our warped and twisted Milky Way. Image: Xiaodian Chen (National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Astronomers from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have mapped our home galaxy to discover it’s ‘real’ shape – and it isn’t what you’d expect.

“We usually think of spiral galaxies as being quite flat, like Andromeda which you can easily see through a telescope,” says Professor Richard de Grijs, a co-author and astronomer from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

However, it turns out the Milky Way’s disc of stars becomes increasingly ‘warped’ and twisted into an S-shape the further away the stars are from the galaxy’s centre.

The scientists used 1339 large pulsating stars in the Milky Way – each up to 100,000 times brighter than our sun – to map the shape of our galaxy, published today in the journal Nature Astronomy.

According to the astronomers, while the Milky Way’s S-sphaped pattern is rare, it’s not unique, with about a dozen other galaxies having been previously shown to have a similar progressively twisted spiral pattern at the outer regions.

“This research provides a crucial updated map for studies of our galaxy’s stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way’s disc,” says Licai Deng, senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and co-author on the paper.

Gemma Chilton

Author: Gemma Chilton

Gemma is the Managing Editor of Careers with STEM magazine. She has previously worked as Digital Managing Editor at Australian Geographic and a staff writer at Cosmos science magazine.


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