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The Milky Way Is Warped in More Ways Than One - Sky & Telescope

Astronomers mapping out luminous stars across our galaxy's disk found that the Milky Way is warped — and multiple factors are twisting its shape.

Picture a spiral galaxy and you probably see something like most artist illustrations of the Milky Way: a top-down view of a pinwheel. But from the side, these disk galaxies appear drastically different. For one, they’re much thinner than they are wide — the typical aspect ratio is like that of a pancake. And, like pancakes wobbling as they flip through the air, these galaxies are often warped.

Warped spiral galaxy ESO 510-13

The edge-on spiral galaxy ESO 510-13, pictured here, shows a distinct warp. Our galaxy's warp is more subtle — and even harder to make out because we're seeing it from the inside.Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA) / C. Conselice (U. Wisconsin / STScI) et al. / NASA

In 1957 radio observations first revealed a warp in the Milky Way’s disk of hydrogen gas, its reservoir of star-making materials. Since then astronomers have seen hints of this warp in other sources, including galactic pulsars, neighborhood stars, and even in the cosmic dust floating throughout our galaxy.

Now, Xiaodian Chen (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and his colleagues have pinpointed luminous stars across two-thirds of our galaxy’s stellar disk, mapping out its warp in exquisite detail. The results, which appear in Nature Astronomy, can help us figure out how our galaxy got its shape.

Spiral with a Twist

Three years ago Chen set out looking for variable stars known as Cepheids. Cepheids are giant stars that can have 20 times the mass of the Sun and 100,000 times its brightness. They become unstable as they near the end of their lives, pulsating in a way that ties directly to their luminosity. That trick makes them invaluable to astronomers, who can use them as objective measures of distance. For this reason, astronomers are always seeking more of them.

Because Cepheids are the kind of massive, fast-burning stars likely to be found in sites of recent star formation, Chen was originally hoping to map out the spiral structure of the Milky Way. But as he plotted the locations of thousands of Cepheids, he realized it wasn’t the spiral arms he was seeing but the warp of our galaxy’s stellar disk.

At least half of all galaxies are warped, but what’s twisting them remains unclear. Twisted shapes may arise during gravitational interactions with satellite galaxies: the Magellanic Clouds, for example, are close enough that they could warp our galaxy’s disk. The infall of other dwarf galaxies long ago — now seen as streams of stars flitting around and out of the disk — could also have played a role. Other options include intergalactic magnetic fields, an interstellar wind blown by starbirth and death, or a misalignment between our galaxy’s disk and the much larger halo that surrounds it.

In other words, the problem is not the lack of possible explanations — it’s the lack of data.

Mapping the Milky Way

Chen picked out 1,339 Cepheid variable stars from the Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) catalog and a number of visible-light surveys. While lots of Cepheids can be found by their visible light, infrared light enables astronomers to peer through dust into places like star-forming regions.

Warped Milky Way

Cepheids map the Milky Way. Blue dots are Cepheids detected in visible light, red dots are detected in infrared.A black triangle marks the Sun's location. The black solid line denotes the so-called line of nodes that helps mathematically describe the warp's shape.X. Chen et al., Nature Astronomy, 2019 Feb 4.

The stars trace a warped disk that extends 65,000 light-years from the galaxy’s center. (The Sun, for reference, is 26,000 light-years out.) The shape is like thrown pottery gone wrong — one side wings upward while the other splays asymmetrically downward. Because the stars’ distances are known so well, Chen and colleagues can precisely replicate the shape they trace using a mathematical model.

Analyzing the model, the researchers suggest that multiple pulls and pushes maintain our galaxy’s shape. Within 50,000 light-years of our galaxy’s center (in other words, within the main portion of the Milky Way), the inner stellar disk pulls on and distorts the outer disk as they both turn in their orbits. But at greater distances from the center, there’s something else at play: “most likely accreted dwarf galaxies or misaligned angular momentum of disk and halo,” Chen says.

The current map shows stars mostly on our side of the galaxy, but infrared surveys continue to find Cepheids on the far side of the Milky Way. Eventually, astronomers will be able to map out the whole of the disk for better insight into not only on its structure but also its history.

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Pluto and Charon Are Missing Small Craters 2019-02-28 17:27:45Scientists studying New Horizons images of craters on Pluto and its moon Charon have found that the Kuiper Belt must contain fewer small objects than

Teens Hunt for Meteorites . . . Underwater 2019-02-28 08:00:03Students and a sled named Starfall are on the hunt for underwater meteorites, dropped as a bolide fragmented over Lake Michigan last year. The post Te

The Beginning of the End for the Hyades 2019-02-26 09:00:31New measurements from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite show that the young stars of the Hyades cluster are beginning to drift apart.

Hayabusa 2 Touches Down, Collects Asteroid Sample 2019-02-25 12:20:03The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 has touched down on Ryugu, the asteroid it's been orbiting since last summer, and collected a sample from its surf

Radio Survey Maps Hundreds of Thousands of New 2019-02-22 09:52:16The LOFAR survey, based in The Netherlands, has released a bonanza of new sources. And with only 2% of the sky covered so far, this is only the beginn


Day and Night Are Perfectly Balanced in Spring 2019-03-22 22:35:02Earth just got another dazzling glamour shot, thanks to a satellite that snapped its photo on the March 20 spring equinox.

Space Webcasts: Astronauts Take Spacewalk Outside Space Station 2019-03-22 15:35:18Two NASA astronauts took a spacewalk outside the International Space Station Friday, March 22, to swap out huge batteries.

Spacewalking Astronauts Swap Space Station Batteries in Power 2019-03-22 15:05:30The International Space Station got a power upgrade today (March 22) as two NASA astronauts took a spacewalk to install new batteries on the station'

SpaceX's Hexagon Tiles for Starship Heat Shield Pass 2019-03-22 14:33:30SpaceX is turning up the heat on its Starship spacecraft project. Literally.

There's a Mock Moon Mission Underway in Russia 2019-03-22 13:44:30Russia's SIRIUS (Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station) experiment is now underway, simulating a flight to the moon.

These Two Cosmic 'Chimneys' Could Be Fueling the 2019-03-22 13:30:40Scientists made an X-ray map of the center of the galaxy — and they found two chimneys of plasma.

Spring Arrives with a Lion in the Night 2019-03-22 13:30:06For each season of the year, there is a "keynote" star pattern — and spring brings us to Leo, the Lion.

Netflix Premieres Nail-Biting '14 Minutes From Earth,' With 2019-03-22 13:27:59The documentary "14 Minutes From Earth," which just premiered on Netflix, shows the secrecy behind, and the excitement following, the highest free-f

The Risk of Apollo: Astronauts Swap Harrowing Tales 2019-03-22 12:53:22Last weekend, a large gathering of Apollo astronauts culminated in a story swap that showcased the risks and dangers of spaceflight.

Sparks Fly as Skydivers Glide Past a Dazzling 2019-03-22 12:25:00Trailing sparks between their wingsuits, the Red Bull Air Force swept into Los Angeles from above on Thursday (March 20) to celebrate the third and fi

A Time Capsule Is Recovered and Lt. Malloy 2019-03-22 12:00:15A simple, back-to-basics episode of "The Orville" reminds us that convoluted plots aren't a prerequisite for quality sci-fi.

You Can Watch SpaceX's Starship Hopper Tests Live 2019-03-22 10:52:31SpaceX's first tests of its prototype Starship may start soon — and you can watch them live online.


Climate Change Just Wiped out Its First Mammal 2019-03-22 17:00:14 Rest in Peace For the first time, a mammal has been driven extinct by human-caused climate change. The Australian government has declared a smal

360-Degree Video Puts You in the Center of 2019-03-22 16:19:40 Galaxy Quest Strap in and hold tight — you’re about to be teleported into a 360-degree rendering of the center of the Milky Way gala

The World’s First Reprogrammable DNA Computer is Here 2019-03-22 15:09:32 Flexible Strands A stark limitation to biological computers was that any code programmed into DNA couldn’t be rewritten. UC Davis computer

New Facility Aims to Capture 40 Million Trees’ 2019-03-22 14:23:07 Carbon Capture A Canadian startup called Carbon Engineering says it’s secured the funding to build a futuristic facility that’ll suck as

Video Shows Tesla Autopilot Steering Toward Highway Barriers 2019-03-22 13:16:14 Crash Cam New dashcam footage shows a Tesla Model 3, with Autopilot switched on, veering towards a highway divider. The video, recorded Tuesday and s

In Rural Areas, the Difference Between a Good 2019-03-22 13:00:12 Poor infrastructure, economic instability, and changing climate are hindering farmers in rural areas. The Global Maker Challenge called for makers an

The U.S. Army Is Using Virtual Reality Combat 2019-03-22 12:29:42 War Games The U.S. military has constructed a massive virtual reality platform to help train infantry soldiers in realistic battlefields filled

NASA Proposes Mission to Neptune’s Largest Moon Triton 2019-03-22 12:11:53 Ocean Worlds We’ve learned a lot about Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, since it was first discovered in 1846. Some scientists believe it

Brutal Startup Is Using Eye Tracking to Force 2019-03-22 11:46:55 Eyes Up Here The founder of MoviePass is back, and this time he’s not messing around. MoviePass co-founder Stacy Spikes has a new startup

Crashed Boeing 737 Jets Lacked Safety Features That 2019-03-22 11:10:49 Vital For Safety The New York Times reports that both Boeing 737 MAX commercial airliner jets that crashed in October and earlier this month lac

The U.S. Military is Mounting a Giant Laser 2019-03-22 09:40:01 Laser Cannon The U.S. Navy says that it’s going to outfit a Destroyer ship with a laser system made by military contractor Lockheed Martin 

United Nations Calls for Registry of Human Gene-Editing 2019-03-21 17:28:13 New Rules The World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations, is trying to sort out how scientists could responsibly alter hum

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