|A bright band that encircles the entire night sky. The Milky Way is, in fact, the main body
of our own spiral galaxy, viewed from within: binoculars or a telescope will resolve
individual stars in the bright mass.
The Milky Way in the Sky
From Earth, without telescopic aid, the band of the Milky Way appears as a bright and hazy region
of light encircling the sky. Many ancient cultures seem to have imagined it as a stream of various kinds. The Egyptians saw
it as a river, perhaps the celestial embodiment of the River Nile. The Greeks imagined it as a stream of milk, and from that
conception comes our modern term, 'Milky Way'. The Greek word for milk is galaktos, incidentally, and this is the ultimate
source for our word 'galaxy'.
The brightness of the Milky Way is not constant. In some regions, it is obscured altogether
by dark clouds of dust. Prominent among these is the
Coalsack, which obscures a large patch of the Milky Way to the south and east of
Crux, the Southern Cross. The Milky Way is at its
brightest in the sky in and around Sagittarius,
and at its least dense in the opposite direction, around the constellation of
Taurus. This is due to the Sun's position within the
Galactic disc. Sagittarius holds the Galactic Nucleus,
and the mass of the Milky Way Galaxy belong to it and its neighbouring constellations. In
Taurus, however, we are looking out through much less dense regions to the near edge of the
The Milky Way Galaxy
Strictly, the term 'Milky Way' refers just to the hazy band of light in the night sky. Through popular use, though,
it has come to be the accepted term for the spiral galaxy that we call home
(though properly this should be referred to simply as 'the Galaxy', with a capital 'G').
In comparison with other galaxies, the Milky Way is unremarkable. Its disc is about
100,000 light years across, or perhaps a little more. This is an extraordinary dimension
from our Earth-bound perspective, but not in comparison with other
galaxies: the Andromeda Galaxy is roughly twice the
size of ours, and other more distant galaxies are more gigantic still. In form, the
Milky Way takes the shape of a gently barred spiral, with two especially prominent
arms and numerous other minor arms within its structure.
Much of the mass of the Galaxy is made up from stars, and the
Interstellar Medium of gas and dust from which stars
are constantly forming, and which they replenish with heavier elements when they reach their death. The Galaxy's
stars are broken down into two distinct populations, Population I and Population II. Population I
stars predominate in the arms and disc of the Galaxy. They are
younger stars with more complex chemistry, like our own Sun.
Much older than these are the Population II stars, which dominate the regions around the
core, and are also commonly found in Globular
Clusters. Population I stars tend to be bluer, while Population II stars
tend to be redder, and this for this reason the Galaxy's core appears yellow-orange, while
its outer regions are bluer. This is common phenomenon, often observed in galaxies beyond our own.
The stars and the visible matter between them, though, do not account for all the mass of the
Galaxy, or even the majority of it. The exact nature of the remaining so-called 'Dark Matter' has yet to be established, but its
existence is beyond doubt. Current suspects include a range of
yet-to-be-detected particles affecting the gravitational forces within the Milky Way.
At the heart of the Galaxy lies an intensely active object known as Sagittarius A*, which is almost certainly a huge black
hole. Surrounding this are concentric rings of rapidly expanding matter, evidence of a huge explosion at our Galaxy's
core about a million years ago.
Surrounding the main disc of the Galaxy are a halo of star clusters known as
Globular Clusters. There are about two hundred of these, forming a roughly spherical
pattern around the Galaxy. They are large - several hundred light years across - and densely
packed with old Population II stars. Several of these are visible to the naked eye,
with the brightest being Omega Centauri, nearly 17,000 light years from
Earth. 47 Tucanae is another well known example,
and there are a crop of these clusters to be found in the
constellation of Ophiuchus.
The Milky Way as it appears in the night sky: a view of our spiral galaxy from within.
Seen from 'above', the spiral structure of our own Milky Way galaxy is a little clearer.