A new study by Chinese and Australian astronomers has developed the world's first accurate three-dimensional picture of the Milky Way's warped appearance, showing that the galaxy's disc is not flat but warped and twisted far away from the center.
It was only in recent centuries that it became an established scientific fact that Earth orbits the sun, and later that the solar system - along with hundreds of billions of other stars - orbits a common galactic center.
Burning their fuel quickly, those pulsating stars that live fast and die young are 100,000 times brighter than the Sun. The distances of the stars were then used as markers to help map out the rest of the galaxy, even its distant outer regions. Cepheids pulse with a regular period that varies with their brightness.
For the past five decades there have been indications that the hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way Galaxy are warped.
The team explained that the warped shape of the Milky Way is caused by the massive inner disk forcing the outer disk to follow its rotation.
The new map, produced by astronomers from Macquarie University in Australia and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shows that the warped Milky Way disk also contains young stars.
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"We would need to do (numerical) simulations of a realistic galaxy embedded in a dark matter halo to see if we can reproduce the observations and figure out how this came about", says de Grijs.
Lead researcher Xiaodian Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said it's hard to determine distances from the sun to the Milky Way's fringes, "without having a clear idea of what that disc actually looks like".
The Milky Way galaxy's new shape has a twist - exaggerated here for effect.
The 1,339 stars are all Cepheid variables, a type of pulsating star whose intrinsic brightness depends on how long it takes to vary from bright to dim and back again.
"Perhaps more importantly, in the Milky Way's outer regions, we found the S-like stellar disc is warped in a progressively twisted spiral pattern". You can see their final plot in the video below, published in Nature Astronomy.
This isn't completely abnormal, because astronomers have noticed the same pattern of progressively twisting spirals in about a dozen other galaxies. They assumed that like the neighboring Andromeda, Milky Way is a neat flat disk with orderly spiral arms.
Researchers from Macquarie University, Australia, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences made their findings after creating a new 3-D map of the Milky Way, which allowed them to better estimate its shape.