The Milky Way Galaxy is our home galaxy in the universe. It is a fairly typical barred spiral with four major arms in its disk, at least one spur, and a newly discovered outer arm. The galactic centre, which is located about 26,000 light-years from Earth, contains at least one supermassive black hole (called Sagittarius A*), and is crossed by a bar. The Milky Way began forming around 12 billion years ago and is part of a group of about 50 galaxies called the Local Group. The Andromeda Galaxy is part of this group as are numerous smaller galaxies, including the Magellanic Clouds. The Local Group itself is part of a larger gathering of galaxies called the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies.
Facts about the Milky Way
- The Milky Way began as a series of dense regions in the early universe not long after the Big Bang. The first stars to form were in globular clusters that still exist. They are among the oldest stars formed in the Milky Way region.
- The Milky Way has grown by merging with other galaxies through time. It is currently acquiring stars from a very small galaxy called the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal, as well as gobbling up material from the Magellanic Clouds.
- The Milky Way moves through space at a velocity of about 552 kilometres per second (343 miles per second) with respect to the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation.
- The Milky Way’s central core contains a supermassive black hole. It is commonly referred to as Sagittarius A*. It contains the mass of about 4.3 million Suns.
- The stars, gas and dust of the Milky Way all orbit the centre at a rate of about 220 kilometres per second. This constant rate for all stars at different distances from the core implies the existence of a shell of dark matter surrounding our galaxy.
- Our galaxy will collide with Andromeda Galaxy in about 5 billion years. Some astronomers refer to our two galaxy as a binary system of giant spirals.
Can you see the shape of a hand in this new X-ray image? The hand might look like an X-ray from the doctor’s office, but it is actually a cloud of material ejected from a star that exploded. NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has imaged the structure in high-energy X-rays for the first time, shown in blue. Lower-energy X-ray light previously detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in green and red.
Nicknamed the “Hand of God,” this object is called a pulsar wind nebula. It’s powered by the leftover, dense core of a star that blew up in a supernova explosion. The stellar corpse, called PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short, is a pulsar: it rapidly spins around, seven times per second, firing out a particle wind into the material around it — material that was ejected in the star’s explosion. These particles are interacting with magnetic fields around the material, causing it to glow with X-rays. The result is a cloud that, in previous images, looked like an open hand. The pulsar itself can’t be seen in this picture, but is located near the bright white spot.
One of the big mysteries of this object is whether the pulsar particles are interacting with the material in a specific way to make it look like a hand, or if the material is in fact shaped like a hand.
NuSTAR’s view is providing new clues to the puzzle. The hand actually shrinks in the NuSTAR image, looking more like a fist, as indicated by the blue color. The northern region, where the fingers are located, shrinks more than the southern part, where a jet lies, implying the two areas are physically different.
The red cloud at the end of the finger region is a different structure, called RCW 89. Astronomers think the pulsar’s wind is heating the cloud, causing it to glow with lower-energy X-ray light.
In this image, X-ray light seen by Chandra with energy ranges of 0.5 to 2 kiloelectron volts (keV) and 2 to 4 keV is shown in red and green, respectively, while X-ray light detected by NuSTAR in the higher-energy range of 7 to 25 keV is blue.