3D map reveals Milky Way is more warped and twisted

Milky Way's Shape

A new study by Chinese and Australian astronomers has developed the world's first accurate three-dimensional picture of the Milky Way's warped appearance, showing that the galaxy's disc is not flat but warped and twisted far away from the center.

Like any galaxy, our home in outer space is made up of a collection of stars, planets, dark matter and other space junk. Using these pulses in brightness, scientists can detect the distance of these stars within 3 percent to 5 percent accuracy, study lead author Xiaodian Chen, a researcher at the National Astronomical Observatories, said in the statement.

Professor de Grijs and colleagues built their map using data for 1,339 classical Cepheid stars from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

Classical Cepheids are young stars that are some four to 20 times as massive as our Sun and up to 100,000 times as bright. The distances of the stars were then used as markers to help map out the rest of the galaxy, even its distant outer regions.

Because they are so bright, Cepheids can be clearly seen millions of light years away and can be easily distinguished from other bright stars in their vicinity, making them indispensable tools in any astronomers' kit. But, for the past 50 years there have been indications that the hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way are warped. However, the hydrogen gas appears to warp more than the stars do, specifically on one of the disk's sides.

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.

"It is notoriously hard to determine distances from the Sun to parts of the Milky Way's outer gas disc without having a clear idea of what that disc actually looks like", says Xiaodian Chen, lead author, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

This undated image provided by Chinese Academy of Sciences shows the Artist's impression of the Milky Way. Just like a goldfish can't see its bowl from the outside, our position in the universe means we can't see our home galaxy, the Milky Way, as the rest of the universe sees it.

"Perhaps more importantly, in the Milky Way's outer regions, we found the S-like stellar disc is warped in a progressively twisted spiral pattern". They used 1,339 pulsating stars - young, newly catalogued stars bigger and brighter than our sun - to map the galaxy's shape.

Now the first accurate 3D map of its kind published in Nature Astronomy reveals they were right.

"This research provides a crucial updated map for studies of our Galaxy's stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way's disk", said co-author Dr. Licai Deng, also from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

He said, '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'.

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