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Physics LibreTexts

25: The Milky Way Galaxy

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  • In this chapter, we start our exploration of the vast realm of galaxies. Like tourists from a small town making their first visit to the great cities of the world, we will be awed by the beauty and variety of the galaxies. And yet, we will recognize that much of what we see is not so different from our experiences at home, and we will be impressed by how much we can learn by looking at structures built long ago. We begin our voyage with a guide to the properties of galaxies, much as a tourist begins with a guidebook to the main features of the cities on the itinerary. In later chapters, we will look more carefully at the past history of galaxies, how they have changed over time, and how they acquired their many different forms. First, we’ll begin our voyage through the galaxies with the question: is our Galaxy the only one?

    • 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.
    • 25.E: The Milky Way Galaxy (Exercises)

    Thumbnail: NGC 6946 is a spiral galaxy also known as the “Fireworks galaxy.” It is at a distance of about 18 million light-years, in the direction of the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1798. This galaxy is about one-third the size of the Milky Way. Note on the left how the colors of the galaxy change from the yellowish light of old stars in the center to the blue color of hot, young stars and the reddish glow of hydrogen clouds in the spiral arms (modification of work by NASA, ESA, STScI, R. Gendler, and the Subaru Telescope (NAOJ)).