10 Astonishing Things You Should Know About the Milky Way

Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Dirkse, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Our little star and the tiny planets that circle it are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its name comes from the Greek galaxias kyklos ("milky circle") and Latin via lactea ("milky road"). Find a remote area in a national park, miles from the nearest street light, and you'll see exactly why the name makes sense and what all the fuss is about. Above is not a sky of black, but a luminous sea of whites, blues, greens, and tans. Here are a few things you might not know about our spiraling home in the universe.

1. THE MILKY WAY IS GIGANTIC.

The Milky Way galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers (about 621,371,000,000,000,000 miles) across. Even traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you well over 100,000 years to go from one end of the galaxy to the other. So it's big. Not quite as big as space itself, which is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," as Douglas Adams wrote, but respectably large. And that's just one galaxy. Consider how many galaxies there are in the universe: One recent estimate says 2 trillion.

2. IT'S JAM-PACKED WITH CELESTIAL STUFF.

An artist's concept of the Milky Way and the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* at its core. ESA–C. Carreau

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy composed of an estimated 300 billion stars, along with dust, gas, and celestial phenomena such as nebulae, all of which orbits around a hub of sorts called the Galactic Center, with a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") at its core. The bar refers to the characteristic arrangement of stars at the interior of the galaxy, with interstellar gas essentially being channeled inward to feed an interstellar nursery. There are four spiral arms of the galaxy, with the Sun residing on the inner part of a minor arm called Orion. We're located in the boondocks of the Milky Way, but that is OK. There is definitely life here, but everywhere else is a question mark. For all we know, this might be the galactic Paris.

3. FOR A SPIRAL GALAXY, IT'S PRETTY TYPICAL …

If you looked at all the spiral galaxies in the local volume of the universe, the Milky Way wouldn't stand out as being much different than any other. "As galaxies go, the Milky Way is pretty ordinary for its type," Steve Majewski, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia and the principal investigator on the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), tells Mental Floss. "It's got a pretty regular form. It's got its usual complement of star clusters around it. It's got a supermassive black hole in the center, which most galaxies seem to indicate they have. From that point of view, the Milky Way is a pretty run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy."

4. …AND YET IT STANDS OUT AMONG ALL GALAXIES.

On the other hand, he tells Mental Floss, spiral galaxies in general tend to be larger than most other types of galaxies. "If you did a census of all the galaxies in the universe, the Milky Way would seem rather unusual because it is very big, our type being one of the biggest kinds of galaxies that there are in the universe." From a human perspective, the most important thing about the Milky Way is that it definitely managed to produce life. If they exist, the creatures in Andromeda, the galaxy next door (see #9), probably feel the same way about their own.

5. FIGURING OUT ITS STRUCTURE FROM THE INSIDE IS A CHALLENGE.

John McSporran, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

We have a very close-up view of the phenomena and forces at work in the Milky Way because we live inside of it, but that internal perspective places astronomers at a disadvantage when it comes to determining a galactic pattern. "We have a nice view of the Andromeda galaxy because we can see the whole thing laid out in front of us," Majewski says. "We don't have that opportunity in the Milky Way."

To figure out its structure, astronomers have to think like band members during a football halftime show. Though spectators in the stands can easily see the letters and shapes being made on the field by the marchers, the band can't see the shapes they are making. Rather, they can only work together in some coordinated way, moving to make these patterns and motions on the field. So it is with telescopes and stars.

6. INTERSTELLAR DUST BLOCKS OUR VIEW OF SOME PARTS OF THE GALAXY.

Interstellar dust further stymies astronomers. "That dust blocks our light, our view of the more distant parts of the Milky Way," Majewski says. "There are areas of the galaxy that are relatively obscured from view because they are behind huge columns of dust that we can't see through in the optical wavelengths that our eyes work in." To ameliorate this problem, astronomers sometimes work in longer wavelengths such as radio or infrared, which lessen the effects of the dust.

7. THE MILKY WAY SPINS, BUT ITS SPEED DOESN'T ADD UP …

Astronomers can make pretty reasonable estimates of the mass of the galaxy by the amount of light they can see. They can count the galaxy's stars and calculate how much those stars should weigh. They can account for all the dust in the galaxy and all of the gas. And when they tally the mass of everything they can see, they find that it is far short of what is needed to account for the gravity that causes the Milky Way to spin.

In short, our Sun is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the galaxy, and astronomers know that it goes around the galaxy at about 144 miles per second. "If you calculate it based on the amount of matter interior to the orbit of the Sun, how fast we should be going around, the number you should get is around 150 or 160 kilometers [93–99 miles] per second," Majewski says. "Further out, the stars are rotating even faster than they should if you just account for what we call luminous matter. Clearly there is some other substance in the Milky Way exerting a gravitational effect. We call it dark matter."

8. … AND WE BLAME DARK MATTER FOR THAT.

Dark matter is a big problem in galactic studies. "In the Milky Way, we study it by looking at the orbits of stars and star clusters and satellite galaxies, and then trying to figure out how much mass do we need interior to the orbit of that thing to get it moving at the speed that we can measure," Majewski says. "And so by doing this kind of analysis for objects at different radii across the galaxy, we actually have a fairly good idea of the distribution of the dark matter in the Milky Way—and yet we still have no idea what the dark matter is."

9. THE MILKY WAY IS ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH ANDROMEDA. BUT DON'T PANIC.

The Andromeda galaxyESA/Hubble & NASA

Sometime in the next 4 or 5 billion years, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will smash into each other. The two galaxies are about the same size and have about the same number of stars, but there is no cause for alarm. "Even though there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy and a comparable number, or maybe more, in Andromeda, when they collide together, not a single star is expected to hit another star. The space between stars is that vast," Majewski says.

10. WE'RE THROWING EVERYTHING WE HAVE AT STUDYING IT.

There are countless spacecraft and telescopes studying the Milky Way. Most famous is the Hubble Space Telescope, while other space telescopes such as Chandra, Spitzer, and Kepler are also returning data to help astronomers unlock the mysteries of our swirling patch of stars. The next landmark telescope in development is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It should finally launch in 2019. Meanwhile, such ambitious projects as APOGEE are working out the structure and evolution of our spiral home by doing "galactic archaeology." APOGEE is a survey of the Milky Way using spectroscopy, measuring the chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars across the galaxy in great detail. The properties of stars around us are fossil evidence of their formation, which, when combined with their ages, helps astronomers understand the timeline and evolution of the galaxy we call home. 

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Nintendo

- Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $199 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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Don't Miss Saturn And Jupiter's Great Conjunction on the Winter Solstice

Paul Williams, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Paul Williams, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 2020, skygazers were treated to meteor showers, a new comet, and a Halloween blue moon. One of the last major astronomical events of the year is set to fall on the night of the winter solstice. On December 21, look up to catch Saturn in conjunction with Jupiter.

What is the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter?

In astronomy, a conjunction occurs when two planets appear exceptionally close in the night sky. Two of our solar system's gas giants will share a celestial "kiss" on the longest night of the year. The rare meeting of Saturn and Jupiter is known as the "great conjunction" by astronomers.

Though conjunctions between the planets are fairly common, Saturn and Jupiter only get together once in a generation. Their last conjunction happened 20 years ago in the year 2000. Even if you were around for the last one, 2020's planetary meet-up is worth catching. Saturn and Jupiter will come within 0.1° of each other, or about one-fifth the width of a full moon. The last time the two planets came that close was in 1653, and they won't match that proximity again until 2080.

How to see the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter

Saturn and Jupiter have been inching closer throughout October and November. You can find them now by looking for Jupiter, currently the brightest planet in the night sky, right after sunset. Saturn will appear just east of Jupiter as a dimmer planet with a golden hue.

As autumn wanes, the two planets will gradually bridge the space between them until they reach conjunction on winter solstice. On Monday, December 21, the planets will be so close that they may form a coalescence. That happens when the light from two planets appear to shine as a single star. When that happens, the super-bright body will be easy to spot.