The Milky Way Demystified

Alright, people…time to finish off our exploration of the Milky Way Galaxy, our home in the cosmos!

For the past nine weeks, we’ve covered everything from how our galaxy was “discovered” to how it may have formed. But there’s so much more to explore–and, starting next week, we’ll begin covering the vast universe of galaxies beyond our own!

But before we do that…I want to wrap up our discussion of our own galaxy with an overview to tie the last nine posts together.

(By the way, has anyone noticed I actually managed to chug out a post a week for the entire Milky Way “module”? I’m a bit impressed with myself for that!)

Anyway…on to the Milky Way!

Continue reading

Exploring the Milky Way’s Nucleus

Here is an edge-on illustration of our Milky Way Galaxy. (Keep in mind that the disk actually stretches quite a bit farther out from the budge than is apparent in this illustration. Proportionally, its full diameter makes its thickness less than that of a pizza crust.)

What if I asked you to imagine what that central bulge would look like to us–lifeforms living inside the galaxy? What would you imagine?

Perhaps you’d imagine looking inwards toward a glowing ball of light. Perhaps you’d imagine a region of our sky unusually thick with stars and interstellar clouds. Or perhaps you’d imagine something entirely different.

But…would you imagine this?

Continue reading

How Massive is the Milky Way?

Over centuries of philosophy and research, through the times of the classical astronomers to Galileo’s observations of the Milky Way, humanity’s understanding of our universe has evolved from a simple model of the sun and planets to a vast wheel of stars we now know as our galaxy.

And since the “discovery” of our Milky Way–or, more accurately, the discovery of what that hazy band of stars in the sky is–we’ve come to realize just how massive our home in the cosmos really is.

That scientific journey started with the Herschels’ mapping of what was then called the “star system.” Later astronomers began to realize just how far out from the sun the stars of our galaxy really reached. Determining distances across our galaxy was the first step to discovering its size.

Later, we began to understand its structure–mapping the extraordinarily thin disk, the chaotic central bulge, and the visible part of the halo, a sphere of stars that extends beyond the plane of the galaxy.

And since then, we’ve begun to master the next critical part of understanding our galaxy: its mass.

So, how massive is our galaxy?

Continue reading