Science 3 min read

Most Detailed Map of Milky Way Shows it's Warped, not Flat

Scientists used large pulsating stars to create the most detailed 3D map of Milky Way, showing its warped, twisted shape.

Image courtesy of OGLE / University of Warsaw, Press Office / M. Kazmierczak / S. Brunier / Y. Beletsky

Image courtesy of OGLE / University of Warsaw, Press Office / M. Kazmierczak / S. Brunier / Y. Beletsky

The Milky Way never ceases to fascinate us, and for good reasons. But primarily, it’s because it has now started to divulge some of its well-kept secrets — thanks to advances in scientific tools.

Our galaxy has ripples in its far edges, has more massive black holes in it than we thought, and is neighboring a vast cosmic void.

It is no secret what the shape of the Milky Way is, right?

It’s a spiral galaxy shaped like a flat disc spanning over 100 light-years and containing more than 200 billion stars. And that’s only half-right.

Now we have a new three-dimensional map suggesting that while our galaxy is shaped like a disc, it isn’t flat but warped.

The Warp in the Map of Milky Way

Also known as Cepheid variables, Cepheids are young, large, pulsating stars in the Milky Way that can be up to 100,000 times brighter than our sun.

Because of Cepheids’ relatively young age (less than 200m years), they provide a way to study how the Milky Way evolved in its recent history, considering the galaxy is 10 billion years old.

Tracking the movement of Cepheids is easy, thanks to the periodic variations in their brightness that allow accurate measurements.

Last February, Australian and Chinese scientists created a 3D map of Milky Way by tracking the movements of more than 1,300 Cepheids. The map shows the galaxy getting more and more warped and flared toward its outer region.

Now, astronomers at the University of Warsaw in Poland have come to the same conclusion using a similar approach. The result confirmed these earlier findings through the most accurate 3D map of the Milky Way to date.

The team has created a large-scale 3D model of the galaxy that reveals the galactic disc isn’t flat but instead has distortions and warps.

The image you can conjure up to get a sense of the Milky Way’s true shape is that of an old vinyl disc that got distorted by the sun.

The researchers combined optical and infrared data of the position of 2,431 Cepheid variable stars. This allowed them to determine the pulsation periods of the stars and map their distribution across the Milky Way. Co-author of the study, Przemek Mroz, said:

“Our three-dimensional map of the Milky Way is the first map that is based on direct distances to thousands of individual objects, as distant as the expected boundary of the galactic disc. Our map shows the Milky Way disk is not flat. It is warped and twisted”This is the first time we can use individual objects to show this in three dimensions.”

The full results of the study, “A three-dimensional map of the Milky Way using classical Cepheid variable stars,” are published in the journal Science.

Read More: Read More: Scientists Discover the Weight of the Milky Way

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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