Galactic Twist: The Warped Shape of Our Milky Way's Disk

An artist's impression of the warped Milky Way galaxy

Normally, it's hard to tell if a star is truly bright or simply close, truly dim or simply very far away. The research team at the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), led by Chen Xiaodian, had to employ a new catalog of variable stars known as classical Cepheids.

The paper, published in Nature Astronomy on February 4, details work by Australian and Chinese astronomers to examine the classical "Cepheids" - a collection of huge, young stars in the Milky Way that can be up to 100,000 times brighter than the sun. They show day- to month-long pulsations, which are observed as changes in their brightness. Until very recently, it has been very hard for scientists to visualize what the Milky Way looks like given that we are embedded inside it.

It turns out our Milky Way galaxy is truly warped, at least around the far edges. Astronomers think the twisted nature of the outer disk is caused by rotational forcing generated by the dense inner regions of the Milky Way.

"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", said Chinese Academy of Sciences astronomer Dr. Xiaodian Chen, lead author of the study. These stars providing high distance accuracy were used as primary distance indicators to develop an intuitive and accurate three-dimensional picture of the galaxy.

Artist's impression of the warped and twisted Milky Way disk.

The new map, produced by astronomers from Macquarie University in Australia and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shows that the warped Milky Way disk also contains young stars.

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A new map of the Milky Way Galaxy reveals its true shape.

The billions of star and galactic bodies that make up a galaxy rotate around its center, making a complete orbit once every few hundred million years, according to Eureka Alert. You can see their final plot in the video below, published in Nature Astronomy. Furthermore, they also fit in with observations of a handful of other galaxies that display progressively twisted spiral patterns in their outer regions.

Scientists have found similar warped shapes among the outer regions of other spiral galaxies.

This is the mysterious invisible material that provides the gravitational "glue" that holds galaxies together.

"Somewhat to our surprise, we found that in 3D, our collection of 1,339 Cepheid stars and the Milky Way's gas disk follow each other closely", Professor de Grijs said.

The resulting resource enabled the team to predict that the hydrogen gas in the outer reaches of the disk was not confined to a thin plane but would actually appear like a warped S-shape if observed from a distance.

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