Milky Way Galaxy Totals About 1.5 Trillion Solar Masses, New Study Concluded

11 Mars, 2019, 10:48 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Milky Way's mass mostly made up of dark matter, new research into the galaxy reveals - 10-Mar-2019 - NZ International news

Researchers used data from the Hubble telescope and Gaia satellite, which is recording the positions of stars to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way, to measure the movement of these clusters.

"For some context, the lowest mass galaxies are around a billion solar masses and the most massive are around 30 trillion solar masses, so the Milky Way is on the higher end of this range-but we already knew that", said Watkins.

In conclusion, the Milky Way galaxy weighs the equivalent of about 1.5 trillion solar masses, by about three times more than the previous estimation said.

From stars, planets, and asteroids through to black holes and invisible dark matter, our galaxy is packed with a lot of stuff. One of the interesting factoids that NASA has offered up about its mass estimate is that only a tiny percentage of the Milky Way's mass is attributed to the approximately 200 billion stars in the galaxy. Previous estimates believed that the mass is as low as 500 billion solar masses and as high as 2 to 3 trillion solar masses.

The new mass estimate puts our galaxy on the beefier side, compared to other galaxies in the universe.

Because dark matter is so hard to calculate, Watkins and her team measured the velocities of dense star clusters, called globular clusters, that orbit the galaxy's spiral disc.

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Globular star clusters are essentially isolated islands, each containing hundreds of thousands of stars - including the oldest-known stars, dating back to a few hundred million years after the big bang - that orbit the centre of the galaxy. Now, scientists have solved one of the riddle of the Milky Way's weight by combining fresh data from the Gaia mission and the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The more massive a galaxy, the faster its clusters move under the pull of its gravity", explains astrophysicist Wyn Evans of the University of Cambridge in Britain in the ESA statement. "However, we were able to also measure the sideways motion of the clusters, from which the total velocity, and consequently the galactic mass, can be calculated", Evans said.

"We were lucky to have such a great combination of data", explained Roeland P. van der Marel (Space Telescope Science Institute, USA).

"Having motions for more objects would give better accuracy", she told Gizmodo.

Finally, Watkins is also anticipating modelling improvements. For now, we'll have to be content with the new figure of 1.5 trillion solar masses and our slightly heavier-than-average Milky Way.

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