Today, we know that our Sun is just one of the many billions of stars that make up the huge cosmic island we call the Milky Way Galaxy. How can we “weigh” such an enormous system of stars and measure its total mass?
One of the most striking features you can see in a truly dark sky—one without light pollution—is the band of faint white light called the Milky Way, which stretches from one horizon to the other. The name comes from an ancient Greek legend that compared its faint white splash of light to a stream of spilled milk. But folktales differ from culture to culture: one East African tribe thought of the hazy band as the smoke of ancient campfires, several Native American stories tell of a path across the sky traveled by sacred animals, and in Siberia, the diffuse arc was known as the seam of the tent of the sky.
In 1610, Galileo made the first telescopic survey of the Milky Way and discovered that it is composed of a multitude of individual stars. Today, we know that the Milky Way comprises our view inward of the huge cosmic pinwheel that we call the Milky Way Galaxy and that is our home. Moreover, our Galaxy is now recognized as just one galaxy among many billions of other galaxies in the cosmos.
- 25.1: The Architecture of the Galaxy
- The Milky Way Galaxy consists of a thin disk containing dust, gas, and young and old stars; a spherical halo containing populations of very old stars, and globular star clusters; a thick, more diffuse disk with stars that have properties intermediate between those in the thin disk and the halo; a peanut-shaped nuclear bulge of mostly old stars around the center; and a supermassive black hole at the very center. The Sun is located roughly halfway out of the Milky Way.
- 25.2: Spiral Structure
- The gaseous distribution in the Galaxy’s disk has two main spiral arms that emerge from the ends of the central bar, along with several fainter arms and short spurs; the Sun is located in one of those spurs. Measurements show that the Galaxy does not rotate as a solid body, but instead its stars and gas follow differential rotation, such that the material closer to the galactic center completes its orbit more quickly.
- 25.3: The Mass of the Galaxy
- The Sun revolves completely around the galactic center in about 225 million years (a galactic year). The mass of the Galaxy can be determined by measuring the orbital velocities of stars and interstellar matter. The total mass of the Galaxy is about 2 × 1012 MSun.As much as 95% of this mass consists of dark matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation and can be detected only because of the gravitational force it exerts on visible stars and interstellar matter.
- 25.4: The Center of the Galaxy
- A supermassive black hole is located at the center of the Galaxy. Measurements of the velocities of stars located within a few light-days of the center show that the mass inside their orbits around the center is about 4.6 million MSun. Radio observations show that this mass is concentrated in a volume with a diameter similar to that of Mercury’s orbit. The density of this matter concentration exceeds that of the densest known star clusters by a factor of nearly a million.
- 25.5: Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
- We can roughly divide the stars in the Galaxy into two categories. Old stars with few heavy elements are referred to as population II stars and are found in the halo and in globular clusters. Population I stars contain more heavy elements than globular cluster and halo stars, are typically younger and found in the disk, and are especially concentrated in the spiral arms. The Sun is a member of population I.
- 25.6: The Formation of the Galaxy
- The Galaxy began forming a little more than 13 billion years ago. Models suggest that the stars in the halo and globular clusters formed first, while the Galaxy was spherical. The gas, somewhat enriched in heavy elements by the first generation of stars, then collapsed from a spherical distribution to a rotating disk-shaped distribution. Stars are still forming today from the gas and dust that remain in the disk. Star formation occurs most rapidly in the spiral arms.
Thumbnail: The Milky Way rises over Square Tower, an ancestral pueblo building at Hovenweep National Monument in Utah. Many stars and dark clouds of dust combine to make a spectacular celestial sight of our home Galaxy. The location has been designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).