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The most accurate model of our galaxy ever created shows the Milky Way is warped

Published Aug 4th, 2019 9:02AM EDT
milky way shape

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Considering we can’t actually see the Milky Way from the outside — since, you know, we’re in it — astronomers know a surprising amount about our home galaxy. They know its overall structure, where we are in it, and what likely lies deep in its heart (spoiler: it’s probably a supermassive black hole).

Now, researchers from the University of Warsaw have created what they believe is the most accurate 3D model of our galaxy to date, and it shows that the Milky Way isn’t nearly as flat as we might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s a warped, weird, wonderful mess.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy with curved arms stretching out into space. Most depictions of our galaxy show it as being rather flat, but data from the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment at the university suggests the opposite.

The team, who describe our galaxy as being less a flat disc and more a “wobbly, uncooked pizza crust,” mapped the position of a specific type of star called Cepheids. Cepheids are pulsating stars and it’s easy for researchers to measure the distance between them and Earth. Using data from 2,431 Cepheids, the team was able to create its incredibly detailed map of the Milky Way.

Along with providing the most accurate look at the shape of our galaxy to date, the scientists also learned some interesting things about the stars they spotted along the way. Cepheids, it turns out, tend to be found in groups, and that might mean that they tend to form bursts.

As for how our galaxy ended up wobbly and weird, it’s tough to say, but the researchers have some ideas. It’s possible, they think, that interactions between the Milky Way and other galaxies — or even dark matter — may be to blame.