Latest Galactic Map Shows That Milky Way Is 'Warped And Twisted'

Jan Cross
February 7, 2019

An global team of astronomers have discovered that the Milky Way's disc of stars becomes increasingly "warped" and twisted the further away the stars are from the galaxy's center.

It was only in recent centuries that it became an established scientific fact that Earth orbits the sun, and later that the solar system - along with hundreds of billions of other stars - orbits a common galactic center.

A new study by the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) might explain the Milky Way's spiral appearance - it's warped. Data on these classical Cepheid stars were provided by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Classical Cepheids are 20 times more massive that the sun and as much as 100,000 times brighter.

Further study validated that the stellar warp morphology is in excellent agreement with that of the galaxy's warp. These are bright stars that pulsate periodically, allowing scientists to use them as "cosmic yardsticks" to measure objects that are far away. But, for the past 50 years there have been indications that the hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way are warped. Astronomers think the twisted nature of the outer disk is caused by rotational forcing generated by the dense inner regions of the Milky Way. However, the hydrogen gas appears to warp more than the stars do, specifically on one of the disk's sides. You can see their final plot in the video below, published in Nature Astronomy.

"It is notoriously hard to determine distances from the Sun to parts of the Milky Way's outer gas disk without having a clear idea of what that disk actually looks like", says Dr. Chen Xiaodian, a researcher at NAOC and lead author of the article published in Nature Astronomy.

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Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, makes for a pretty space picture, and it looks normal at a distance.

Combined with a Cepheid's observed brightness, its pulsation period can be used to obtain a highly reliable distance. These stars providing high distance accuracy were used as primary distance indicators to develop an intuitive and accurate three-dimensional picture of the galaxy. Instead of lying in a flat plane, the galaxy takes on a bit of a twisted "S" shape.

The Milky Way's shape is a disk ... with a twist.

From the 3D distribution map, researchers found that the new derived stellar disc is warped in a progressively twisted spiral pattern, with an S-shape.

"This research provides a crucial updated map for studies of our Galaxy's stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way's disk", said co-author Dr. Licai Deng, also from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "This offers new insights into the formation of our home galaxy", said Richard de Grijs, a professor at Macquarie University.

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