The weight of the Milky Way has finally been discovered

The weight of the Milky Way has finally been discovered

The weight of the Milky Way has finally been discovered

"We know from cosmological simulations what the distribution of mass in the galaxies should look like, so we can calculate how accurate this extrapolation is for the Milky Way", said Laura Watkins of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, lead author of the combined Hubble and Gaia study.

One solar mass is the mass of our sun, which is 2 times 10 to the 30th power kilograms. This uncertainty is primarily a function of the different means astronomers and physicists used to measure the distribution of dark matter through the galaxy.

When the Hubble and Gaia measurements are combined as anchor points, like pins on a map, astronomers can estimate the distribution of the Milky Way's mass out to almost 1 million light years from Earth. The faster the clusters move, the more massive the galaxy.

"Most previous measurements have found the speed at which a cluster is approaching or receding from Earth, that is the velocity along our line of sight". "By combining Gaia's measurements of 34 globular clusters with measurements of 12 more distant clusters from Hubble, we could pin down the Milky Way's mass in a way that would be impossible without these two space telescopes".

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This artist's impression shows a computer generated model of the Milky Way Galaxy and the accurate positions of the globular clusters used in this study surrounding it. Watkins et al used the measured velocities of these 44 globular clusters to determine the total mass of the Milky Way.

Ashley Strickland at CNN reports that a surprisingly small amount of that mass comes from the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way and the large, 4-million-solar-mass black hole they all swirl around.

The researchers based their study on data collected by Gaia, an ESA (European Space Agency) satellite designed to create a precise three-dimensional map of astronomical objects throughout the Milky Way and to track their motions.

The April release of data included data on globular clusters as far away as 65,000 light years from Earth.

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The project involved worldwide collaboration between scientists working for NASA and ESA on the Hubble and Gaia telescopes. Now, scientists have solved one of the riddle of the Milky Way's weight by combining fresh data from the Gaia mission and the Hubble Space Telescope. Still, astronomers would like to have a precise measure of the Galaxy's mass to better understand how the myriad galaxies throughout the Universe form and evolve. Together, the spacecraft made a comprehensive map that let astronomers estimate the Milky Way's mass out to 1 million light-years. Since Hubble has been observing some of these objects for ten years, it was also possible to accurately track the velocities of these clusters as well.

The global team of astronomers in this study consists of Laura L. Watkins (European Southern Observatory, Germany), Roeland P. van der Marel (Space Telescope Science Institute, USA, and Johns Hopkins University Center for Astrophysical Sciences, USA), Sangmo T. Sohn (Space Telescope Science Institute, USA), and N. Wyn Evans (University of Cambridge, UK). The vast majority of the weight of our galaxy is dark matter. Imagine then what it must feel like for an astronomer to stand on a small rocky world in the midst of the Milky Way and try and work out how much it weighs. "We're inside the Milky Way, stuck about halfway out from the center, and everything we learn about it we learn from right here".

Van der Marel added, "We were lucky to have such a great combination of data".

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