The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. This name derives from its appearance as a dim “milky” glowing band arching across the night sky, in which the naked eye cannot distinguish individual stars. The term “Milky Way” is a translation of the Classical Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος (pr. galaxías kýklos, “milky circle”). The Milky Way appears like a band because it is a disk-shaped structure being viewed from inside. The fact that this faint band of light is made up of stars was proven in 1610 when Galileo Galilei used his telescope to resolve it into individual stars. In the 1920s, observations by astronomerEdwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.
The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter containing 100–400 billion stars. It may contain at least as many planets. The Solar System is located within the disk, around two thirds of the way out from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of a spiral-shaped concentration of gas and dust called the Orion Arm. The stars in the inner ≈10,000 light-years form a bulgeand one or more bars. The very center is marked by an intense radio source named Sagittarius A* which is likely to be a supermassive black hole. Stars and gas throughout the Galaxy rotate about the center at approximately the same speed, which contradicts the laws ofKeplerian dynamics. This indicates that much of the mass of the Milky Way does not emit or absorb electromagnetic radiation; this mass is known as dark matter. The rotational period is about 200 million years at the position of the Sun. The Galaxy as a whole is moving at a velocity of approximately 600 km per second with respect to extragalactic frames of reference. The oldest known star in the Galaxy is about 13.2 billion years old, nearly as old as the Universe. Surrounded by several smaller satellite galaxies, the Milky Way is part of theLocal Group of galaxies, which forms a subcomponent of the Virgo Supercluster.
When observing the night sky, the term “Milky Way” is limited to the hazy band of white light some 30 degrees wide arcing across the sky (although all of the stars that can be seen with the naked eye are part of the Milky Way Galaxy). The light in this band originates from un-resolvedstars and other material that lie within the Galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by interstellar dust.
The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness. Its visibility can be greatly reduced by background light such as light pollution or stray light from the moon. It is readily visible when the limiting magnitude is +5.1 or better, while showing a great deal of detail at +6.1. This makes the Milky Way difficult to see from any brightly lit urban or suburban location but very prominent when viewed from a rural area when the moon is below the horizon.
The Milky Way passes through parts of roughly 30 constellations. The center of the Galaxy lies in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius; it is here that the Milky Way is brightest. From Sagittarius, the hazy band of white light appears to pass westward to the Galactic anticenter in Auriga. The band then continues westward the rest of the way around the sky back to Sagittarius. The fact that the band divides the night sky into two roughly equalhemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies close to the Galactic plane.
The Galactic plane is inclined by about 60 degrees to the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth’s orbit). 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 north Galactic pole is situated at right ascension 12h 49m, declination +27.4° (B1950) near beta Comae Berenices, and the south Galactic pole is near alpha Sculptoris. Because of this high inclination, depending on the time of night and the year, the arc of Milky Way can appear relatively low or relatively high in the sky. For observers from about 65 degrees north to 65 degrees south on the Earth’s surface the Milky Way passes directly overhead twice a day.
The Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are a binary system of giant spiral galaxies belonging to a group of 50 closely bound galaxies known as theLocal Group, itself being part of the Virgo Supercluster.
Two smaller galaxies and a number of dwarf galaxies in the Local Group orbit the Milky Way. The largest of these is the Large Magellanic Cloud with a diameter of 20,000 light-years. It has a close companion, the Small Magellanic Cloud. The Magellanic Stream is a peculiar streamer of neutral hydrogengas connecting these two small galaxies. The stream is thought to have been dragged from the Magellanic Clouds in tidal interactions with the Milky Way. Some of the dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way are Canis Major Dwarf (the closest), Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, Ursa Minor Dwarf,Sculptor Dwarf, Sextans Dwarf, Fornax Dwarf, and Leo I Dwarf. The smallest Milky Way dwarf galaxies are only 500 light-years in diameter. These include Carina Dwarf, Draco Dwarf, and Leo II Dwarf. There may still be undetected dwarf galaxies, which are dynamically bound to the Milky Way, as well as some that have already been absorbed by the Milky Way, such as Omega Centauri. Observations through the Zone of Avoidance are frequently detecting new distant and nearby galaxies. Some galaxies consisting mostly of gas and dust may also have evaded detection so far.
In January 2006, researchers reported that the heretofore unexplained warp in the disk of the Milky Way has now been mapped and found to be a ripple or vibration set up by the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds as they circle the Galaxy, causing vibrations at certain frequencies when they pass through its edges. Previously, these two galaxies, at around 2% of the mass of the Milky Way, were considered too small to influence the Milky Way. However, by taking into account dark matter, the movement of these two galaxies creates a wake that influences the larger Milky Way. Taking dark matter into account results in an approximately twentyfold increase in mass for the galaxy. This calculation is according to a computer model made by Martin Weinberg of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In this model, the dark matter is spreading out from the Galactic disk with the known gas layer. As a result, the model predicts that the gravitational effect of the Magellanic Clouds is amplified as they pass through the Galaxy.
Current measurements suggest the Andromeda Galaxy is approaching us at 100 to 140 kilometers per second. The Milky Way may collide with it in 3 to 4 billion years, depending on the importance of unknown lateral components to the galaxies’ relative motion. If they collide, individual stars within the galaxies would not collide, but instead the two galaxies will merge to form a single elliptical galaxy over the course of about a billion years.
In western culture the name “Milky Way” is derived from its appearance as a dim un-resolved “milky” glowing band arching across the night sky. The term is a translation of the Classical Latin via lactea, in turn derived from the Hellenistic Greek γαλαξίας, short for γαλαξίας κύκλος (pr. galaktikos kyklos, “milky circle”). The Ancient Greek γαλαξίας (galaxias), from root γαλακτ-, γάλα (milk) + -ίας (forming adjectives), is also the root of “galaxy”, the name for our, and later all such, collections of stars. The Milky Way “milk circle” was just one of 11 circles the Greeks identified in the sky, others being the zodiac, the meridian, the horizon, the equator, the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Arctic and Antarctic circles, and two colure circles passing through both poles.
There are many creation myths around the world which explain the origin of the Milky Way and give it its name. In Greek myth, the Milky Way was caused by milk spilt by Hera when suckling Heracles. It is also described as the road to mount Olympus, and the path of ruin made by the chariot of the Sun god Helios.
In Sanskrit and several other Indo-Aryan languages, the Milky Way is called Akash Ganga (आकाशगंगा, Ganges of the heavens); it is held to be sacred in the Hindu Puranas (scriptures), and the Ganges and the Milky Way are considered to be terrestrial and celestial analogs. Kshira (क्षीर, milk) is an alternative name for the Milky Way in Hindu texts in Sanskrit.