How Did the Milky Way Form?

Over the course of my last eight posts, we’ve covered just about everything there is to cover about our home galaxy–or, well, at least the basics.

We’ve explored how astronomers first discovered what that incredible, milky stream of dust across the night sky actually is. We’ve followed astronomers like the Herschels and Harlow Shapley as they tried to measure the size of our galaxy.

We’ve covered its structure–a thin disk of spiral arms, surrounded by an enormous, diffuse halo–and how truly massive this great wheel is.

We then explored those spiral arms, where all the youngest stars are–and where stars form in the first place. And we explored the chaotic nucleus at the very center of the galaxy.

Most recently, we delved into the composition of the Milky Way–that is, how much heavy elements its stars contain. We discovered that stellar compositions hint at how old certain parts of the galaxy are.

But there’s one question we haven’t answered yet, and it’s quite possibly the most important one of all.

How did the Milky Way actually become what it is today?

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The Composition of the Milky Way

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What is our home galaxy made up of?

In the broadest sense, it’s made up of stars, clouds of dust and gas, and the mysterious dark matter.

We could also get a little more detailed. We could say that it is a great wheel of stars, made up of a thin disk component, a central bulge, and a broader spherical halo that surrounds the disk.

We could even build on that, and say that the thin disk is where all the youngest stars are found. We could say that within the thin disk are spiral arms, where the star formation actually happens. We could say that the oldest stars are found in the central bulge and the halo, where there is very little dust and gas to make new stars.

But…what about its chemical composition? If we could explore our galaxy and bring home test tubes of “star stuff,” what would we find? And what can that tell us about our galaxy’s history?

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