Tuesday, January 6, 2009

No Pee-Wee Galaxy Ours

It appears our own Milky Way Galaxy isn’t as twee as we once believed.

Not that I, nor most of the inhabitants of this planet, for that matter, fret even a little about the size of our galaxy comparative to others in the neighborhood. But, given the trend of late of trimming and reducing the size and quantity of things in our little corner of the universe (I’m still upset about the demotion of Pluto, mind you) it’s heartening to hear that the Milky Way might indeed be as massive as the Andromeda Galaxy, heretofore thought to be the Big Brother in our local galaxial group.

Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently completed measurements of the movement of areas of prolific star formation to determine how fast they were moving. They discovered, according to this article, that the Milky Way is spinning at about 600,000 miles per hour, or 100,000 miles per hour faster than previously thought. Using the arcane voodoo of mathematics, which kept me from my childhood dream of becoming an astronomer, they have determined that, given the faster rotation, the Milky Way must be about 50 percent heavier than previously thought, putting our own galaxy on par with the mass of Andromeda.

Another interesting finding:
Reid and his colleagues found other surprises, too. Measuring the distances to
multiple regions in a single spiral arm allowed them to calculate the angle of
the arm. “These measurements,” Reid said, “indicate that our Galaxy probably has four, not two, spiral arms of gas and dust that are forming stars.” Recent surveys by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that older stars reside mostly in two spiral arms, raising a question of why the older stars don't appear in all the arms. Answering that question, the astronomers say, will require more measurements and a deeper understanding of how the Galaxy works.
So the galaxy isn’t even as boring as once assumed – a mere two-armed bipedal octopus spinning through oblivion.

It’s often been a dream of mine to fly out over the Milky Way and look down at its spinning disk and revel in watching its bright arms spin gently against the blackness of outer space. It’s happened a few times in my dreams – always starting with a gigantic leap from the trampoline in the backyard of my boyhood home, where I soared for a while admiring the stars above, only to turn earthward and admire the roofs of our chicken coop and that of the neighbors’ until I soared higher and higher and higher until the earth was gone and the galaxy’s arms swam beneath me. Then I read that Albert Einstein often wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel through it at the speed of light on a motorcycle. Maybe that’s all it takes – Einstein wasn’t very good at the mathematics, either.

So I’ll keep dreaming about that galaxy of ours. Someday, I’ll see it from the perspective I desire.

No comments: