What Are Spiral Arms?

Probably the most spectacular feature of our Milky Way galaxy is its spiral arms.

We can’t get a probe far enough out yet to take a galactic selfie, but astronomers are reasonably sure that we live in a spiral galaxy. Observations of other spiral galaxies offer clues to what kind of objects can help us trace out the shapes of spiral arms, called spiral tracers. Using those spiral tracers, we’ve been able to map out patterns within our own galaxy that appear to be spiral arms.

Over the years, astronomers have tested the spiral arm hypothesis against the evidence again and again, and there is now a great deal of confidence that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy.

More than that–star formation, which we know is limited to the disk of the galaxy (rather than its central bulge or halo), appears to be specifically found in the spiral arms.

But why? And for that matter…what even are spiral arms?

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Exploring the Milky Way’s Spiral Arms

The Milky Way–our home galaxy–is a spiral galaxy, a classification I often describe as pinwheel-shaped.

The main difference between a spiral galaxy’s shape and a pinwheel’s shape is that spiral galaxies, like the Milky Way, only have two main arms. For the Milky Way, those are the Scutum-Centaurus arm and the Perseus arm. If you study the image above, you’ll notice that all the other arms are a bit wispier, and most branch off from the main arms.

There’s just one problem, though…

How do we even know that this image is an accurate depiction of our galaxy? How do we know that the Milky Way has spiral arms?

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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?

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How Big is the Milky Way?

How big is our galaxy, anyway?

And more than that–how do we know?

Consider that we can’t really take a photo like this of our galaxy. We’re inside it, and space travel has not advanced to the point where we can leave it just yet. There’s no way we can get a camera out to take a picture from this perspective.

Most things in the universe–like stars, planets, and even other galaxies–can be measured using their angular diameters. That is, we use trigonometry to find their actual sizes based on how large they appear to us in the sky.

But that doesn’t work for an object that we’re inside of.

In order measure the size of our own galaxy, early astronomers had to get a bit creative–with variable stars.

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Discovery of the Milky Way

Ever seen this before?

It’s not a sight that most of the developed world gets to see–at least not all the time. Light pollution from major cities completely obscures this view. Even in the suburbs where I live, I can kind of make it out–because I know where to look and what to expect.

The best way to really see it is to head out into the desert. Or the open ocean. Really, any place that’s a bit geographically removed from civilization. Growing up, Joshua Tree National Park was always my go-to for dark skies.

Even on an exceptionally dark night, though, you won’t necessarily see this. You’ll definitely be wowed by the vast, bright sprinkling of stars overhead, more than you ever see under less than ideal conditions. But the image above was taken with a long exposure.

That is, the camera shutter remained open for a while to collect more light for one image than your eyes ever will. You and I pretty much only see one image per moment.

So what is this gorgeous, hazy band, anyway?

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How are Stars Born?

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Astronomers have discovered that the clouds of gas and dust—the interstellar medium (ISM)—found between the stars are made of the same materials as the stars themselves. In fact, hydrogen is the most common element in both stars and the ISM, followed closely by helium.

But it would be more accurate to say that stars are made of the same material as the ISM, not the other way around.

This is because all of the stars formed out of material in the ISM at some point millions to hundreds of billions of years ago. And when they die, they return that material—what’s left of it—to the ISM.

Specifically, stars form out of the giant molecular clouds (GMCs) of the ISM. But how?

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Radiation from Interstellar Dust

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Does this sight look familiar?

If you’ve had the opportunity to observe the night sky from a dark place, far away from the light pollution of the city, on a clear night, you might have seen this before. It’s the Milky Way—our view of our galaxy from the inside.

It’s kind of like if you lived inside a frisbee. Look up toward the flat sides, and there’s not as much material to look through. But peer out at the edges of the disk, and you have to look through a lot more stars.

Most of the stars you see in the night sky are part of the Milky Way. But this is the sight we get when we stare through to the center of the frisbee.

Thing is, though, this is far from the most spectacular sight of the night sky.

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Info in a Rainbow

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What do you see in this image?

If you’re from a larger city and haven’t had the opportunity to venture into a place like the desert, you might not know what you’re looking at. That’s the Milky Way, our name for our galaxy.

Inside this galaxy are billions of stars, including our own. Galileo Galilei was the first to discover that it was really many tiny points of light, not just a cloud-like haze across the dark night sky.

We can’t see our galaxy from outside, but we can learn a lot about it by looking out at it from within. It’s difficult. It’s like trying to learn about a building if you can never step outside one of its rooms.

But we can do it, with the help of the spectrograph.

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Einstein: Special Relativity

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Albert Einstein’s name literally sends shivers down my spine.

This is the man who discovered physics as we know it. This is the man who filled in the gaps where even Newton’s laws of motion went wrong and expanded our understanding of the universe.

This man was a genius in every right—even if his social skills were somewhat lacking.

By the way…I can’t help but notice this is my first post with actual photographs of the scientist in question, instead of portraits. We’re moving along, people…

So. To the point. Einstein is famous for taking revolutionary and widely accepted laws of physics—those that Newton figured out—and showing where there were some holes in the math. But Einstein wasn’t just an annoying critic.

He took it all a step further…and showed us how physics really works.

He came up with the idea of relativity.

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Where Are We?

In the 4th century B. C. E. (Before Common Era), scientists believed the Earth was the center of the universe. Before that, they were convinced the Earth was flat.

Now, most of us know that the Earth is not the center of the universe—nor is it flat. (Although there are definitely those who still believe we live atop a flat disk world, hurtling upwards through space.)

Not only is the Earth not the center of the universe, neither is the sun—and it’s not even the exact center of our solar system (you can read more on that here).

And if we zoomed out much farther and took a look at our galaxy from above—or below, take your pick—we’d find that the sun is not even near the center of its own galaxy.

It is, in fact, located in a small “spur” of stars just off one of the spiraling arms of the galaxy. And if our universe is in fact infinite—as the prevailing theory describes—then there can’t even be a center, so our galaxy is not the center of anything.

But what does all of this mean? Where exactly are we in the universe?

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