The Milky Way, or simply the Galaxy, is the galaxy in which the Solar System is located. It is a barred spiral galaxy that is part of the Local Group of galaxies. It is one of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.
Its name is a translation of the Latin Via Lactea, in turn translated from the Greek Γαλαξίας (Galaxias), referring to the pale band of light formed by the galactic plane as seen from Earth (see etymology of galaxy). Some sources hold that, strictly speaking, the term Milky Way should refer exclusively to the band of light that the galaxy forms in the night sky, while the galaxy should receive the full name Milky Way Galaxy, or alternatively the Galaxy. However, it is unclear how widespread this convention is, and the term Milky Way is routinely used in either context.Appearance from Earth
The Milky Way Galaxy, as viewed from Earth, itself situated on a spur off one of the spiral arms of the galaxy (see Sun's location and neighborhood), appears as a hazy band of white light in the night sky arching across the entire celestial sphere and originating from stars and other material that lie within the galactic plane. The plane of the Milky Way is inclined by about 60° to the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth's orbit), with the North Galactic Pole situated at right ascension 12h 49m, declination +27.4° (B1950) near beta Comae Berenices. The South Galactic Pole is near alpha Sculptoris.
The center of the galaxy is in the direction of Sagittarius, and the Milky Way then "passes" (going westward) through Scorpius, Ara, Norma, Triangulum Australe, Circinus, Centaurus, Musca, Crux, Carina, Vela, Puppis, Canis Major, Monoceros, Orion & Gemini, Taurus, Auriga, Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus & Lacerta, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Sagitta, Aquila, Ophiuchus, Scutum, and back to Sagittarius.
The Milky Way looks brightest in the direction of the constellation of Sagittarius, toward the galactic center. Relative to the celestial equator, it passes as far north as the constellation of Cassiopeia and as far south as the constellation of Crux, indicating the high inclination of Earth's equatorial plane and the plane of the ecliptic relative to the galactic plane. The fact that the Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies close to the galactic plane. The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness, making it difficult to see from any urban or suburban location suffering from light pollution.
A panorama of the Milky Way, as seen from Death Valley, 2007.
The stellar disk of the Milky Way Galaxy is approximately 100,000 light-years (9.5×1017 km) in diameter, and is considered to be, on average, about 1,000 ly (9.5×1015 km) thick. It is estimated to contain at least 200 billion stars and possibly up to 400 billion stars, the exact figure depending on the number of very low-mass stars, which is highly uncertain. This can be compared to the one trillion (1012) stars of the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy. Extending beyond the stellar disk is a much thicker disk of gas. Recent observations indicate that the gaseous disk of the Milky Way has a thickness of around 12,000 ly (1.1×1017 km)—twice the previously accepted value. As a guide to the relative physical scale of the Milky Way, if it were reduced to 10m in diameter, the Solar System, including the Oort cloud, would be no more than 0.1mm in width (0.001%).
The Galactic Halo extends outward, but is limited in size by the orbits of two Milky Way satellites, the Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds, whose perigalacticon is at ~180,000 ly (1.7×1018 km). At this distance or beyond, the orbits of most halo objects would be disrupted by the Magellanic Clouds, and the objects would likely be ejected from the vicinity of the Milky Way.
Recent measurements by the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) have revealed that the Milky Way is much heavier than some previously thought. The mass of our home galaxy is now considered to be roughly similar to that of our largest local neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy. By using the VLBA to measure the apparent shift of far-flung star-forming regions when the Earth is on opposite sides of the Sun, the researchers were able to measure the distance to those regions using fewer assumptions than prior efforts. The newer and more accurate estimate of the galaxy's rotational speed (and in turn the amount of dark matter contained by the galaxy) puts the figure at about 254 km/s, significantly higher than the widely accepted value of 220 km/s. This in turn implies that the Milky Way has a total mass equivalent to around 3 trillion Suns, about 50% more massive than some previously thought.
It is extremely difficult to define the age of the Milky Way but the age of the oldest star in the galaxy yet discovered, HE 1523-0901, is estimated to be about 13.2 billion years, nearly as old as the Universe itself.
This estimate is based on research by a team of astronomers in 2004 using the UV-Visual Echelle Spectrograph of the Very Large Telescope to measure, for the first time, the beryllium content of two stars in globular cluster NGC 6397. From this research, the elapsed time between the rise of the first generation of stars in the entire galaxy and the first generation of stars in the cluster was deduced to be 200 million to 300 million years. By including the estimated age of the stars in the globular cluster (13.4 ± 0.8 billion years), they estimated the age of the oldest stars in the Milky Way at 13.6 ± 0.8 billion years. Based upon this emerging science, the Galactic thin disk is estimated to have been formed between 6.5 and 10.1 billion years ago.
 Composition and structure
The galaxy consists of a bar-shaped core region surrounded by a disk of gas, dust and stars forming four distinct arm structures spiralling outward in a logarithmic spiral shape (see Spiral arms). The mass distribution within the galaxy closely resembles the Sbc Hubble classification, which is a spiral galaxy with relatively loosely-wound arms. Astronomers first began to suspect that the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy in the 1990s rather than an ordinary spiral galaxy. Their suspicions were confirmed by the Spitzer Space Telescope observations in 2005 which showed the galaxy's central bar to be larger than previously suspected. The Milky Way's mass is thought to be about 5.8 × 1011 solar masses (M☉) comprising 200 to 400 billion stars. Its integrated absolute visual magnitude has been estimated to be −20.9. Most of the mass of the galaxy is thought to be dark matter, forming a dark matter halo of an estimated 600–3000 billion M☉ which is spread out relatively uniformly.
 Galactic Center
The galactic disc, which bulges outward at the galactic center, has a diameter of between 70,000 and 100,000 light-years. The distance from the Sun to the galactic center is now estimated at 26,000 ± 1400 light-years, while older estimates could put the Sun as far as 35,000 light-years from the central bulge.
The galactic center harbors a compact object of very large mass as determined by the motion of material around the center. The intense radio source named Sagittarius A*, thought to mark the center of the Milky Way, is newly confirmed to be a supermassive black hole. For a photo see Chandra X-ray Observatory; Jan. 6, 2003. Most galaxies are believed to have a supermassive black hole at their center.
The galaxy's bar is thought to be about 27,000 light-years long, running through its center at a 44 ± 10 degree angle to the line between the Sun and the center of the galaxy. It is composed primarily of red stars, believed to be ancient (see red dwarf, red giant). The bar is surrounded by a ring called the "5-kpc ring" that contains a large fraction of the molecular hydrogen present in the galaxy, as well as most of the Milky Way's star formation activity. Viewed from the Andromeda Galaxy, it would be the brightest feature of our own galaxy.
 Spiral arms
Each spiral arm describes a logarithmic spiral (as do the arms of all spiral galaxies) with a pitch of approximately 12 degrees. There are believed to be four major spiral arms which all start near the galaxy's center. These are named as follows, according to the image at right:
|cyan||3-kpc and Perseus Arm|
|purple||Norma and Outer arm (Along with a newly discovered extension)|
|pink||Carina and Sagittarius Arm|
|There are at least two smaller arms or spurs, including:|
|orange||Orion-Cygnus arm (which contains the Sun and Solar System)|
Outside of the major spiral arms is the Outer Ring or Monoceros Ring, a ring of stars around the Milky Way proposed by astronomers Brian Yanny and Heidi Jo Newberg, which consists of gas and stars torn from other galaxies billions of years ago.
As is typical for many galaxies, the distribution of mass in the Milky Way Galaxy is such that the orbital speed of most stars in the galaxy does not depend strongly on its distance from the center. Away from the central bulge or outer rim, the typical stellar velocity is between 210 and 240 km/s. Hence the orbital period of the typical star is directly proportional only to the length of the path traveled. This is unlike the situation within the Solar System, where two-body gravitational dynamics dominate and different orbits are expected to have significantly different velocities associated with them. This difference is one of the major pieces of evidence for the existence of dark matter. Another interesting aspect is the so-called "wind-up problem" of the spiral arms. If one believes that the inner parts of the arms rotate faster than the outer part, then the galaxy will wind up so much that the spiral structure will be thinned out. But this is not what is observed in spiral galaxies; instead, astronomers propose that the spiral arms form as a result of a matter-density wave emanating from the galactic center. This can be likened to a moving traffic jam on a highway — the cars are all moving, but there is always a region of slow-moving cars. Thus this results in several spiral arms where there are a lot of stars and gas. This model also agrees with enhanced star formation in or near spiral arms; the compressional waves increase the density of molecular hydrogen and protostars form as a result.
Observations presented in 2008 by Robert Benjamin of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater suggest that the Milky Way possesses only two major stellar arms: the Perseus arm and the Scutum-Centaurus arm. The rest of the arms are minor or adjunct arms.
The galactic disk is surrounded by a spheroid halo of old stars and globular clusters, of which 90% lie within 100,000 light-years, suggesting a stellar halo diameter of 200,000 light-years. However, a few globular clusters have been found farther, such as PAL 4 and AM1 at more than 200,000 light-years away from the galactic center. While the disk contains gas and dust which obscure the view in some wavelengths, the spheroid component does not. Active star formation takes place in the disk (especially in the spiral arms, which represent areas of high density), but not in the halo. Open clusters also occur primarily in the disk.
Recent discoveries have added dimension to the knowledge of the Milky Way's structure. With the discovery that the disc of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) extends much further than previously thought, the possibility of the disk of our own galaxy extending further is apparent, and this is supported by evidence of the newly discovered Outer Arm extension of the Cygnus Arm. With the discovery of the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy came the discovery of a ribbon of galactic debris as the polar orbit of the dwarf and its interaction with the Milky Way tears it apart. Similarly, with the discovery of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, it was found that a ring of galactic debris from its interaction with the Milky Way encircles the galactic disk.
On January 9, 2006, Mario Jurić and others of Princeton University announced that the Sloan Digital Sky Survey of the northern sky found a huge and diffuse structure (spread out across an area around 5,000 times the size of a full moon) within the Milky Way that does not seem to fit within current models. The collection of stars rises close to perpendicular to the plane of the spiral arms of the galaxy. The proposed likely interpretation is that a dwarf galaxy is merging with the Milky Way. This galaxy is tentatively named the Virgo Stellar Stream and is found in the direction of Virgo about 30,000 light-years away.
 Sun's location and neighborhood
The Sun (and therefore the Earth and the Solar System) may be found close to the inner rim of the galaxy's Orion Arm, in the Local Fluff inside the Local Bubble, and in the Gould Belt, at a distance of 7.62±0.32 kpc (~25,000±1,000 ly) from the Galactic Center. The Sun is currently 5–30 parsecs from the central plane of the galactic disc. The distance between the local arm and the next arm out, the Perseus Arm, is about 6,500 light-years. The Sun, and thus the Solar System, is found in the galactic habitable zone.
There are about 208 stars brighter than absolute magnitude 8.5 within 15 parsecs of the Sun, giving a density of 0.0147 such stars per cubic parsec, or 0.000424 per cubic light-year (from List of nearest bright stars). On the other hand, there are 64 known stars (of any magnitude, not counting 4 brown dwarfs) within 5 parsecs of the Sun, giving a density of 0.122 stars per cubic parsec, or 0.00352 per cubic light-year (from List of nearest stars), illustrating the fact that most stars are less bright than absolute magnitude 8.5.
The Apex of the Sun's Way, or the solar apex, is the direction that the Sun travels through space in the Milky Way. The general direction of the Sun's galactic motion is towards the star Vega near the constellation of Hercules, at an angle of roughly 60 sky degrees to the direction of the Galactic Center. The Sun's orbit around the Galaxy is expected to be roughly elliptical with the addition of perturbations due to the galactic spiral arms and non-uniform mass distributions. In addition, the Sun oscillates up and down relative to the galactic plane approximately 2.7 times per orbit. This is very similar to how a simple harmonic oscillator works with no drag force (damping) term. These oscillations often coincide with mass extinction periods on Earth; presumably the higher density of stars close to the galactic plane leads to more impact events.
It takes the Solar System about 225–250 million years to complete one orbit of the galaxy (a galactic year), so it is thought to have completed 20–25 orbits during the lifetime of the Sun and 1/1250 of a revolution since the origin of humans. The orbital speed of the Solar System about the center of the Galaxy is approximately 220 km/s. At this speed, it takes around 1,400 years for the Solar System to travel a distance of 1 light-year, or 8 days to travel 1 AU (astronomical unit).