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Milky Way Galaxy

Never visible from large cities with their bright lights, smoke and haze, the Milky Way can still be readily viewed from distant suburbs and rural locations. Visually it appears as a faint, albeit distinct ghostly band of light; it almost looks more "smoky" than "milky" in appearance. From a truly dark site, however, it appears in full glory: The brightest portions can cast faint shadows, and it appears highly complex and structured to the unaided eye and like veined marble when viewed with ordinary binoculars.

What it is?

Before the invention of the telescope, the true nature of the Milky Way Galaxy ("Gala" is Greek for milk) was a mystery. Now we know it's a concentration of stars in our own galaxy.

The galaxy's center is about 26,000 light-years away toward the Sagittarius star cloud. From where we sit, the galaxy's outer edge is about 20,000 light-years in the opposite direction (toward Auriga and Taurus). We reside on a spur of the Orion arm, and what we see as we look at the Milky Way in our night sky is just a portion of nearest stars between us and the galactic center.

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy, about 100,000 light-years across. If you could look down on it from the top, you would see a central bulge surrounded by four large spiral arms that wrap around it. Spiral galaxies make up about two-third of the galaxies in the universe.

Unlike a regular spiral, a barred spiral contains a bar across its center region, and has two major arms. The Milky Way also contains two significant minor arms, as well as two smaller spurs. One of the spurs, known as the Orion Arm, contains the sun and the solar system. The Orion arm is located between two major arms, Perseus and Sagittarius.

The Milky Way does not sit still, but is constantly rotating. As such, the arms are moving through space. The sun and the solar system travel with them. The solar system travels at an average speed of 515,000 miles per hour (828,000 kilometers per hour). Even at this rapid speed, the solar system would take about 230 million years to travel all the way around the Milky Way.

Curled around the center of the galaxy, the spiral arms contain a high amount of dust and gas. New stars are constantly formed within the arms. These arms are contained in what is called the disk of the galaxy. It is only about 1,000 light-years thick.

At the center of the galaxy is the galactic bulge. The heart of the Milky Way is crammed full of gas, dust, and stars. The bulge is the reason that you can only see a small percentage of the total stars in the galaxy. Dust and gas within it are so thick that you can't even peer into the bulge of the Milky Way, much less see out the other side.

Tucked inside the very center of the galaxy is a monstrous black hole, billions of times as massive as the sun. This supermassive black hole may have started off smaller, but the ample supply of dust and gas allowed it to gorge itself and grow into a giant. The greedy glutton also consumes whatever stars it can get a grip on. Although black holes cannot be directly viewed, scientists can see their gravitational effects as they change and distort the paths of the material around it, or as they fire off jets. Most galaxies are thought to have a black hole in their heart.

The bulge and the arms are the most obvious components of the Milky Way, but they are not the only pieces. The galaxy is surrounded by a spherical halo of hot gas, old stars and globular clusters. Although the halo stretches for hundreds of thousands of light-years, it only contains about two percent as many stars as are found within the disk.

Dust, gas, and stars are the most visible ingredients in the galaxy, but the Milky Way is also made up of dark matter. Scientists can't directly detect the material, but like black holes, they can measure it based on its effect on the objects around it. As such, dark matter is estimated to make up 90 percent of the mass of the galaxy.


Collision course

Not only is the Milky Way spinning, it is also moving through the universe. Despite how empty space might appear in the movies, it is filled with dust and gas — and other galaxies. The massive collections of stars are constantly crashing into one another, and the Milky Way is not immune.

In about four billion years, the Milky Way will collide with its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. The two are rushing towards each other at about 70 miles per second (112 km per second). When they collide, they will provide a fresh influx of material that will kick of star formation anew.

The Andromeda Galaxy is obviously not the most careful of drivers. It shows signs of having already crashed into another galaxy in the past. Although it is the same age as the Milky Way, it hosts a large ring of dust in its center, and several older stars.

The dark Coalsack is readily apparent in the middle of the image. The stars Alpha Centauri (the closest star to our solar system at 4.3-light years away) and Beta Century are to the left of the Coalsack, while the famous Southern Cross (Crux) is poised just above and to the right of the Coalsack. The Southern Milky Way is far more spectacular than the Milky Way that those of us situated north of the equator can ever see.

Of course, the imminent collision shouldn't be a problem for inhabitants of Earth. By the time the two galaxies ram headlong, the sun will already have ballooned into a red giant, making our planet uninhabitable.

Milky Way Facts

The Milky Way contains over 200 billion stars, and enough dust and gas to make billions more.

The solar system lies about 30,000 light-years from the galactic center, and about 20 light-years above the plane of the galaxy.

More than half the stars found in the Milky Way are older than the 4.5 billion year old sun.

The most common stars in the galaxy are red dwarfs, a cool star about a tenth the mass of the sun. Once thought unsuitable for potential life-bearing planets because such bodies would have to be too close to meet the criteria, red dwarfs are now considered potential suspects.

As late as the 1920s, astronomers thought all of the stars in the universe were contained inside of the Milky Way. It wasn't until Edwin Hubble discovered a special star known as a Cepheid variable, which allowed him to precisely measure distances, that astronomers realized that the fuzzy patches once classified as nebula were actually separate galaxies.


Translation: Queen of Ethiopia or Andromeda's Mother. Best seen in November (at 9:00 PM)

Named Stars

SHEDIR (Alpha Cas)

Caph (Beta Cas)

Ruchbah (Delta Cas)

Segin (Epsilon Cas)

Achird (Eta Cas)

Marfak (Theta Cas)

Marfak (Mu Cas)

Cassiopeia, the Queen, is visible in the Northern Hemisphere all year long.

Cassiopeia is known as the Celestial W when below the pole and the Celestia M when above it.

Cassiopeia is bound to her chair and forever circles the pole with her head downward. A fitting punishment by the Nereids (Sea Nymphys) for her boast of being more beautiful than all the Nereids.

Cassiopeia was the wife of Cepheus and mother of Andromeda.



Translation: The Dolphin. Best seen in September (at 9:00 PM)

Named Stars

Sualocin (Alpha Del)

Rotanev (Beta Del)

Deneb Dulfim (Epsilon Del)

Delphinus, the Dolphin, can be seen late summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Delphinus was known by Ancient Greeks as the 'Sacred Fish' and appears twice in mythology, once a dolphin helped Posideon located the mermaid, Amphitrite, and brought her back to be Poseidon's Queen in his golden palace at the bottom of the sea. As a reward Poseidon placed the dolphin among the stars. The second appearance is when Arion, a poet and musician was sailing back to Greece, when his crew turned against him, using a Lyre he summoned up a school of dolphins, throwing himself into the sea; one of the dolphins carried him on its back to Greece.



Translation: Hercules

Best seen in July (at 9:00 PM)

Named Stars

Rasalgethi (Alpha 1 Her)

Kornephoros (Beta Her)

Sarin (Delta Her)

Marfik (Kappa Her)

Maasym (Lambda Her)

Kajam (Omega Her)

Hercules, the Son of Zeus, is best seen in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere. You can find him by looking between Draco and Ophiuchus. Hercules is visible in the Southern Hemisphere from May until August.

Hercules is another of the oldest constellations, but he was not known to the first Greek astronomers by that name (early Greeks called him the Kneeling One). Hercules is best known for his twelve labors, because he killed his children in a fit of anger. The twelve labors are thought to represent the Sun's passing through the twelve zodiacal constellations.


Ursa Major

Translation: The Greater Bear (in Arabic ELdob Elakbar)

Best seen in April (at 9:00 PM)

Named Stars

Dubhe (Alpha UMa)

Merak (Beta UMa)

Phad (Gamma UMa)

Megrez (Delta UMa)

Alioth (Epsilon UMa)

Mizar (Zeta UMa)

Alkaid (Eta UMa)

Talitha (Iota UMa)

Tania Borealis (Lambda UMa)

Tania Australis (Mu UMa)

Alula Borealis (Nu UMa)

Alula Australis (Xi UMa)

Muscida (Omicron UMa)

Muscida (Pi 1 UMa)

Muscida (Pi 2 UMa)

Alcor (80 UMa)

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is visible in the Northern Hemisphere all year long.

Ursa Major is the best known of the constellation and it appears in every reference known.

The drawings all show a bear with a long tail, again not likely correct since bears have no tails. The most likely explanation for the bears and one which I find intriguing is the fact that Native Americans called the constellations the bear, but instead of the tail theyIf you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you can use the Big Dipper to find all sorts of important stars:

If you draw an imaginary line from Merak through Dubhe out of the cup of the dipper (see the picture above) and continue five times as far as Dubhe is from Merak, you will arrive at Polaris, the North Star.

Now draw an imaginary line along the handle of the dipper and continue the arc across the sky. Eventually this will lead you to the very bright star, Arcturus in the constellation Boötes. If you continue the arc further, you will reach Spica in Virgo. You can remember this by saying "Arc to Arcturus and Speed to Spica."

If you follow the other two stars in the cup of the dipper (Megrez and Phecda) down below the cup, you will get to Regulus.html, the brightest star in Leo. depict the bear being chased around the pole by seven braves.


Ursa Minor

Translation: The Little Bear

Named Stars

Polaris (Alpha UMi)

Kocab (Beta UMi)

Pherkad (Gamma UMi)

Yildun (Delta UMi)

Pherkad Minor (11 UMi)

The constellation Ursa Minor contains the group of stars commonly called the Little Dipper. The handle of the Dipper is the Little Bear's tail and the Dipper's cup is the Bear's flank. The Little Dipper is not a constellation itself, but an asterism, which is a distinctive group of stars. Another famous asterism is the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major.

The most famous star in Ursa Minor is Polaris, the North Star. This is the star that is nearest to the North Celestial Pole. If you stood at the north pole, Polaris would be almost directly overhead. If you can spot Polaris in the sky, you can always tell which way is north. In addition, the angle of Polaris above the horizon tells you your latitude on the Earth. Because of this, Polaris was the most important star for navigating at sea.

To find Polaris, first find the Big Dipper. If you follow the two stars at the end of the cup upwards (out of the cup of the Big Dipper), the next bright star you will run into is Polaris. The distance to Polaris on the sky is about five times the angle between the two stars at the end of the cup of the Big Dipper. Because they are so useful for finding the all-important North Star, these two stars are known as the Pointer Stars. They are also called Dubhe and Merak (Merak is the one at the bottom of the cup).

Because the Earth's axis is precessing (like a spinning top wobbles around), Polaris is only temporarily at the North Pole. In about 14,000 years, Vega will be the North Star and another 14,000 years after that, it will be Polaris again. Precession is caused by the the gravitational attraction of the Sun and the Moon. It only happens because the Earth is not quite spherical.



Translation: The Eagle.  Best seen in September (at 9:00 PM)

Named Stars

Altair (Alpha Aql)

Alshain (Beta Aql)

Tarazed (Gamma Aql)

Deneb el Okab (Epsilon Aql)

Deneb el Okab (Zeta Aql)

Altair, along with Deneb and Vega form the well-known Summer Triangle.

Depictied as an eagle, Aquila is named for the bird that belonged to Zeus. Aquila's most famous task was carrying the mortal Ganymede to the heavens to serve as Zeus' cup bearer.

Two major novae have been observed in Aquila. The first one was in 389 AD and was recorded to be as bright as Venus. The other shone brighter than Altair, the brightest star in Aquila. A nova is what the ancients called a "new star." In reality, it is not a new star at all, but a very old one that suddenly becomes bright again, regaining some of the former glory of its youth. Note that there is a very strong difference between a nova (an old star brightening temporarily) and a supernova (a massive star exploding). Aquila is visible in the Northern Hemisphere from July thru October and part of the summer triangle.