A 12-year study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society has confirmed that our Milky Way Galaxy has four spiral arms, following years of debate that it has only two arms.
“The Milky Way is our galactic home and studying its structure gives us a unique opportunity to understand how a very typical spiral galaxy works in terms of where stars are born and why,” said co-author Prof Melvin Hoare from the University of Leeds.
In the 50s, astronomers used radio telescopes to map the Milky Way. Their observations focused on clouds of gas in the Galaxy in which new stars are born, revealing four major spiral arms.
In 2008, scientists using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope scoured our Galaxy for infrared light emitted by stars. They revealed about 110 million stars, but only evidence of two spiral arms.
The astronomers behind the new study used several radio telescopes to individually observe about 1,650 massive stars in the Galaxy. The distances and luminosities of these stars were calculated, revealing a distribution across four spiral arms.
“It isn’t a case of our results being right and those from Spitzer’s data being wrong – both surveys were looking for different things. Spitzer only sees much cooler, lower mass stars – stars like our Sun – which are much more numerous than the massive stars that we were targeting,” Prof Hoare said.
Massive stars are much less common than their lower mass counterparts because they only live for a short time – about 10 million years. The shorter lifetimes of massive stars means that they are only found in the arms in which they formed, which could explain the discrepancy in the number of galactic arms that different research teams have claimed.
“Lower mass stars live much longer than massive stars and rotate around our Galaxy many times, spreading out in the disc. The gravitational pull in the two stellar arms that Spitzer revealed is enough to pile up the majority of stars in those arms, but not in the other two. However, the gas is compressed enough in all four arms to lead to massive star formation,” Prof Hoare said.
“It’s exciting that we are able to use the distribution of young massive stars to probe the structure of the Milky Way and match the most intense region of star formation with a model with four spiral arms,” said lead author Dr James Urquhart of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.
Urquhart JS et al. The RMS survey: galactic distribution of massive star formation. MNRAS 437 (2): 1791-1807; doi: 10.1093/mnras/stt2006