An illustration of the true shape of the Milky Way with an S-like warp in the outer reaches of the disk. Credit CHEN Xiaodian
07 February, 2019, 15:57
The study's breakthrough moment came by observing Cepheids - massive, super bright stars with short life spans.
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 used 1,339 pulsating stars - young, newly catalogued stars bigger and brighter than our sun - to map the galaxy's shape. But a new 3D map reveals a surprise: The Milky Way is being warped and twisted by its stars. The units "kpc" (kiloparsecs) along the image's three axes are used by astronomers to indicate distances on galaxy-wide scales. "Combining our results with those other observations, we concluded that the Milky Way's warped spiral pattern is most likely caused by "torques" - or rotational forcing - by the massive inner disk". "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 Australia's Macquarie University.
"This new morphology provides a crucial updated map for studies of our galaxy's stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way's disk", study co-author Licai Deng, a senior researcher at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a statement.
The research team showed, with the help of the Cepheids, how the Milky Way isn't a flat cosmic disk shaped like a lipless frisbee or a pancake, but instead it's markedly warped into an S-like shape.
From a great distance our galaxy would look like a thin diss of stars that orbit once every few hundred million years around its central region. That means that if you know the pulsation period, you can infer the star's actual luminosity, then compare that with the luminosity observed from Earth in order to determine the distance. "This offers new insights into the formation of our home galaxy". They have found that the Milky Way is not exactly as artist's impressions might have you believe - it's actually twisted and warped, bending at the edges.
Dr. Liu Chao, senior researcher and co-author of the paper said that the researchers observed other "warped" spiral galaxies.
This is the mysterious invisible material that provides the gravitational "glue" that holds galaxies together.
But as you get further out, the gravity weakens and the gas that makes up the disk doesn't fall neatly into the thin plane that stars closer to the centre do. "Perhaps more importantly, in the Milky Way's outer regions, we found that the S-like stellar disk is warped in a progressively twisted spiral pattern".
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