New 3D map of Milky Way suggests it is warped and twisted

An artist's rendition of the Milky Way galaxy side-on with Skowron's nearly 2,500 Cepheid stars plotted across the curved surface. Image courtesy of J. Skowron  OGLE

An artist's rendition of the Milky Way galaxy side-on with Skowron's nearly 2,500 Cepheid stars plotted across the curved surface. Image courtesy of J. Skowron OGLE

We don't have a GPS system for our "warped and twisted" galaxy so astronomers have to get crafty when it comes to pinpointing our location among the stars and creating maps of the Milky Way.

The Warsaw team used the same technique as the Beijing scientists for their new map, but factored in data from over 1000 more stars, some as remote as the boundary of the Milky Way's disk.

The locations of these cepheid stars illustrate the way the Milk Way's disk curves away from its centre in more detail and with more precision than ever before.

Until now, the understanding of the galaxy's shape had been based upon indirect measurements of celestial landmarks within the Milky Way and inferences from structures observed in other galaxies populating the universe.

Astronomers from Warsaw University speculate that it might have been bent out of shape by past interactions with nearby galaxies.

The two studies show very similar results, particularly in regard to the unusual nature of the Milky Way's warped edges. The Milky Way is not flat like a pancake, and is instead "warped and twisted", in the words of co-author Przemek Mroz, who described his team's work in a related video. These elderly stars are from a time much earlier in the Milky Way's life cycle, so they would provide another method to map the galaxy.

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The map showed that the galaxy's disk, far from flat, is significantly warped and varies in thickness from place to place, with increasing thickness measured further from the galactic center.

"A key question would be whether there is a similar, possibly opposite warp [on the other side] too", he said.

They say that warping may have been caused by past interactions with smaller galaxies within the Milky Way called satellite galaxies, or as a result of intergalactic gas and dark matter.

Most of the stars were identified by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's southern Atacama Desert. The disk boasts a diameter of about 140,00 light years.

The 1.3 metre Warsaw telescope in the Chilean Andes is used for the OGLE survey, and it can monitor the brightness of stars and measure their properties for years. Within, they found the population of Cepheids, which are particularly useful for plotting a map because their brightness fluctuates over time. Also, the new map is more accurate than previous efforts because of the greater number of stars and the "very high purity" of the Cepheids samples, she said.

Astronomers have presented a twist on how we see our galaxy, the Milky Way, with a new three-dimensional map. To improve the current map, Skowron said observations made from the Northern Hemisphere would add further clarity, along with the use of observatories capable of peering through to the other side of the galactic core and at super-dusty regions very close to the galactic plane.

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