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Mon. Mar 18, 2002

Bird's Eye View and Other Fresh Insights (cont.)

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Bird's-Eye View: What the carbon stars of the Milky Way would look like as viewed from above by a faraway astronomer.

The 2MASS survey's view of the entire Milky Way, seen from our vantage point of Earth.

Baby Pictures: Clues to the Milky Way's youth can be gleaned from images like this, distant galaxies seen in the Hercules Deep Field survey.

Nearest Galaxy Ripped from Another, Study Suggests
Stars common to two neighboring galaxies show they may have had a common origin.

Fog Lifts on Source of High-Speed Galactic Clouds
Gas clouds that orbit the Milky Way's halo at unusually high speeds may have more than one origin, according to two new studies.

Cosmic Fossils Show Milky Way Is a Galaxy Gobbler
Globular clusters and star streams are relics of ancient processes, revealing that our galaxy builds much of its bulk by borrowing from other, relatively smaller galaxies. The findings are presented in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

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Invisible corona

The stars of the Milky Way's main disk span a region of space about 100,000 light-years across, and the thick central bulge is a sphere about 25,000 light-years in diameter. To picture this, think of a typical sci-fi flying saucer. For decades, this was the official picture of our galaxy. More recently, a handful of studies have added a sprinkling of stars that live in a sparse halo outside the main disk.

Then early this year, astronomers made a remarkable announcement: Our galaxy's influence extends as far as 150,000 light-years in all directions, in the form of an invisible, gaseous sphere called a corona.

Researchers have known for some years that a corona existed. But its newfound size is astonishing, says Kenneth Sembach of the Space Telescope Science

Institute, who made the discovery with a team of other researchers using NASA's FUSE spacecraft.

"The corona is hot," Sembach told "It probably has a temperature in excess of 1 million degrees (Fahrenheit)."

The corona is only sparsely sprinkled with particles, however, and nearly impossible to detect on its own. Yet when cold, extragalactic clouds of hydrogen gas fall into the corona, their outer shells become superheated and thus detectable, Sembach explained. FUSE found several of these clouds racing into the galaxy at nearly 1 million mph.

Previous studies had detected similar clouds, but they were closer in. Researchers aren't sure if the clouds are leftovers from the Milky Way's formation or if they are bits of smaller galaxies that have been ripped away by our galaxy's greater gravity.

"We are finding that the Milky Way is a much more complex system than we had perhaps previously imagined," Sembach says.

Baby pictures

If the current structure of the Milky Way is complex, then trying to imagine its formation and evolution is downright perplexing.

Despite all the new efforts to dig up information about the galaxy's structure and evolution, some pieces of the puzzle are lost forever. There are no baby pictures of the Milky Way, and in truth no way to be sure what it looked like at any time prior to the present.

That's where people like Matthew Malkan can help out. Malkan studies galaxies so far away that their light was generated back when the galaxies were forming, several billion years ago. By studying scores of such galaxies in all stages of development, Malkan finds patterns he thinks can be pieced together to form a representative baby picture of our own galaxy.

Malkan and other UCLA astronomers recently worked with researchers at Ohio State to generate one of the deepest galactic surveys ever done, called the Hercules Deep Field. They combined visible and infrared images of galaxies in a selected region of the sky to create refined calculations for how far away each galaxy is, how old it is, and how many stars it had formed.

In all this data and in other studies, Malkan looks for clues to how galaxies formed.

"Galaxy collisions and encounters were very important early on in the universe as a whole," he says. "In the early days of the Milky Way there must have been a lot of material flinging into galaxies. That probably had a big impact on how a galaxy evolved."

Some theorists think these collisions tended to make galaxies shaped more like a football than like the many known flat galaxies with central bulges and winging spiral arms, galaxies like the Milky Way. It may be, they say, that flat spiral structures were too fragile to survive all the collisions.

"That would imply that the bulge part of the Milky Way, if it's like the rest of the galaxies, probably was here first," Malkan says. "And the beautiful disk and spiral arms look like they are younger."

Removing the mystery

The big question about the Milky Way now is whether the renaissance of study will yield a definitive picture of formation and evolution.

Skrutskie, the University of Virginia astronomer, thinks the Milky Way's history is encoded in present-day stars, their types and their distributions. Future surveys need only obtain a good picture of the locations and motions "of a significant fraction of stars" in order to provide the clues needed to pin down how the galaxy was assembled, when mergers took place, and when bursts of star formation occurred.

"I don't see the Milky Way as particularly mysterious given our present state of knowledge," he said. "Instead, I look at it as a rich archeological site that we are just beginning to explore."

But Malkan and his deep sky colleagues will likely figure huge in any effort to decode our own galaxy.

"There's a lot of reason to be optimistic," Malkan says. "It's a really powerful synergism to combine" chemical and light studies of individual stars in the Milky Way with samples of faraway galaxies in various phases of evolution.

Malkan has been doing the latter for decades. But, he says, "It's been less than 10 years that we've really been able to look at these galaxies in their young states. Things have been exploding since then."

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Science Tuesday: looks at how astronauts would thrive and survive during longterm interstellar spaceflights.

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