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!)
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.
Okay, good question. How the heck do you find an object that emits no radiation? Astronomers find—and study—just about everything in the universe using the radiation it emits or reflects. So…what happens when the object we’re looking for has such a strong gravitational pull that even light can’t escape?
Well, that’s when we need to turn to the theoretical science behind black holes. What measurable effects do they have on objects in their vicinity? Can we detect them indirectly?
Of course, some of you might be screaming at me that we’ve already photographed a black hole—in visual wavelengths! Yes, astronomers did make that achievement—we now have visual proof that what we’ve been theorizing all along is indeed real.
But that black hole was so faint, it took an interferometer the size of the Earth to image. We had to know exactly where to look in order to get that picture.
So how the heck do we find one in the first place?
Meet the Pillars of Creation, a photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope in 1995. These apparent “pillars” of dust and gas are what we call molecular clouds. And this region of clouds in space is aptly named: it’s where stars are created.
Technically, there are two types of molecular clouds—molecular clouds and giant molecular clouds, or GMCs—but I’ll get into that in a second.
Molecular clouds are deep within the interstellar medium. In case you don’t remember the ISM from my “recent” posts (sorry about that), it’s the stuff between the stars. It’s the galaxy’s backstage. Space is in fact not a perfect vacuum—it’s full of the ISM.
So what’s going on with molecular clouds like the Pillars of Creation?
Much earlier on—probably months ago now—I explained how something called the proton-proton chain generates massive amounts of energy within stars, and enables them to fuel whole solar systems. That’s the battery of a star.
We’ll address the proton-proton chain later, when we start talking about star life cycles. We’ve still got some talk about nebulas and interstellar space to go before we get that far. For now, what’s important is that the proton-proton chain depends on high density.
That is, stars will have the strongest batteries if they have very dense interiors. It doesn’t really matter how dense their middles and atmospheres are. But conditions in their cores must be very dense.
You’ll find, if you study stars closely, that there is a definite relation between their densities, masses, and luminosities.
We know how big stars are; they range from the size of the Earth to over a thousand times the size of the sun (which is in itself over one hundred times the size of the Earth). We know they’re huge.
But how massive are they?
Yes, that’s a different thing.
A pingpong ball and a golf ball are close to the same size, but a golf ball is much more massive—in that it has more stuff in it. A pingpong ball is hollow and easily tossed; a golf ball has more matter in it and will hit the ground with a harder thunk.
Stars are similar. They have a wide range of sizes, but nothing I’ve described thus far has told us about their masses. That is, how much stuff is in them? Are they like puffy gaseous balls, or are they more dense, like planets?
The best way to learn about stars’ masses is by studying binary stars. But what exactly are binary stars?
“The Building Blocks of the Universe.” When you put it that way, atoms sound less like a topic specifically for a chemistry class and more like something astronomers might discuss.
They really are. I’ve got a fantastic reason to include atoms under astronomy, and its name is stellar spectra.
We’ve encountered stellar spectra before in these astronomy posts. When I wrote about the spectrograph, an instrument astronomers use to study data, I talked about spectral lines. I also promised we’d come back to elaborate on that later.
We’re not actually going to talk about the spectrograph in this post. I’m saving that for another time. For now, I’m going to cover atoms in a little more detail.
But Kepler never could figure out why planets orbit the sun in ellipses instead of circles. Even Isaac Newton, who at last identified gravity as the reason we stick to Earth’s surface, couldn’t explain what gravity was—only how it worked.
Einstein provided that explanation with his general theory of relativity.
It’s said that Sir Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when an apple fell on his head, and that’s when all his discoveries began.
Personally, I doubt that story—just as I doubt that Galileo Galilei ever dropped iron and wooden balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. His goal would have been to show that both objects hit the ground at the same time. Unfortunately, wind resistance would have gotten in the way.
Regardless of how Newton discovered gravity, his scientific achievements are monumental. In fact, we recognize him today as one of the greatest scientists to ever live, second only to the famous Albert Einstein.
Newton’s revelation that gravity draws objects toward Earth changed the course of modern science. But what exactly did he find out?
The simplest approach to chemistry is to start basic.
Not basic as in acids and bases, ha-ha…sorry, bad chemistry joke.
I mean basic as in, what the heck even is chemistry?
I admit that I’m better versed in astronomy than chemistry. I’ve studied chemistry for exactly one year of my life—last year, 12th grade. Astronomy, on the other hand, has been my strong suit and my passion for several years.
For me, these Wednesday posts are like a refresher course. I don’t actually remember everything I’ve learned. Good thing I bought a copy of the textbook.
So, I’ll start simple—because chemistry is the study of breaking complex things down to the simplest bits possible. It’s the opposite of astronomy. Astronomy studies huge, mind-blowing phenomena. Chemistry, on the other hand…is mind-blowingly small.