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Milky Way is Larger Than Previous Estimates Suggest

Milky Way galaxy

Our galaxy – the Milky Way – is over 50 percent larger than is commonly estimated. The reference to “milky” is derived from its appearance as a dim glowing band arching across the night sky. Here the naked eye cannot distinguish individual stars. Up until now, the Milky Way was considered to be a spiral galaxy some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter, containing a myriad of 100–400 billion stars.

New research suggests that this is because the galactic disk is contoured into several concentric ripples. This folding effect had previously been hidden from astronomers.

The new size estimate has been made by a team at  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Professor Heidi Jo Newberg and her research group have examined a vast amount of data collected from an astronomical survey called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a major multi-filter imaging and spectroscopic examination of the heavens, undertaken using a dedicated 2.5-m wide-angle optical telescope located at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, U.S.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way is over 50% larger than is commonly estimated

Interviewed by the physics site Phys.Org., Heidi Newberg states: “In essence, what we found is that the disk of the Milky Way isn’t just a disk of stars in a flat plane—it’s corrugated. As it radiates outward from the sun, we see at least four ripples in the disk of the Milky Way. While we can only look at part of the galaxy with this data, we assume that this pattern is going to be found throughout the disk.”

 Newberg’s findings indicate that features previously identified as rings within the Milky Way are actually part of the a galactic disk, extending the known width of the Milky Way from 100,000 light years across to 150,000 light years.

The research has been published in the Astrophysical Journal, in a paper called “Rings and Radial Waves in the Disk of the Milky Way.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.