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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Structure of the Milky Way

In the vast expanse of the cosmos, the Milky Way Galaxy is our home.

You’ve no doubt seen images of the Milky Way and similar galaxies elsewhere online. It’s a large, spiral galaxy, one of the most spectacular galactic shapes. That spiral shape is fairly iconic–and for years, that’s as far as I thought galaxy classification went.

Turns out, galaxies are way more diverse than just the main three classifications I knew about (spirals, ellipticals, and irregulars). The Milky Way is fully classified as an SBbc: a barred spiral galaxy with a medium-sized nucleus.

Spirals are also described as “grand design” (two distinct spiral arms) or “flocculent” (a sort of fluffy appearance); the Milky Way is somewhere in the middle.

But even those classifications and descriptions don’t fully describe our galaxy.

So what exactly is the structure of the galaxy we call home?

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