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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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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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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