Milky Way's 'Local Arm' larger than thought
Washington: Our home in the Milky Way galaxy could be much larger than previously thought, a new study suggests.
Earth resides between two major spiral arms of our home galaxy, in a structure called the Local Arm.
New research using the ultra-sharp radio vision of the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) indicates that the Local Arm, previously thought to be only a small spur, instead is much more like the adjacent major arms, and is likely a significant branch of one of them.
"Our new evidence suggests that the Local Arm should appear as a prominent feature of the Milky Way," said Alberto Sanna, of the Max-Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Sanna and his colleagues presented their findings to the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Indianapolis.
Determining the structure of our own Galaxy has been a longstanding problem for astronomers because we are inside it.
In order to map the Milky Way, scientists need to accurately measure the distances to objects within the Galaxy. Measuring cosmic distances, however, also has been a difficult task, leading to large uncertainties.
The result is that, while astronomers agree that our Galaxy has a spiral structure, there are disagreements on how many arms it has and on their specific locations.
To help resolve this problem, researchers turned to the VLBA and its ability to make the most accurate measurements of positions in the sky available to astronomers.
By observing objects when Earth is on opposite sides of its orbit around the Sun, astronomers can measure the subtle shift in the object's apparent position in the sky, compared to the background of more-distant objects.
A striking result was an upgrade to the status of the Local Arm within which our Solar System resides. We are between two major spiral arms of the Galaxy, the Sagittarius Arm and the Perseus Arm.
The Sagittarius Arm is closer to the Galactic center and the Perseus Arm is farther out in the Galaxy.
The Local Arm previously was thought to be a minor structure, a "spur" between the two longer arms. Details of this finding were published in the Astrophysical Journal.
"Based on both the distances and the space motions we measured, our Local Arm is not a spur. It is a major structure, maybe a branch of the Perseus Arm, or possibly an independent arm segment," Sanna said.