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.

artist's illustration of the milky way galaxy and its center
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.

andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy
ESA/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. 

The Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks This Week: Here's When and Where to See It

iStock.com/sripfoto
iStock.com/sripfoto

Star-gazers are in for a treat this week with the Geminid meteor shower set to light up skies across the globe. According to Space.com, the shower produces consistently stunning light shows this time each year, with meteors that are fast, frequent, and bright depending on where they're viewed. Whether you catch the spectacle every December or you'll be watching it for the first time, there's some important information to know before the 2018 event.

While most meteor showers are the product of our planet passing through the tail of a comet, the Geminid meteors come from something different: A small, rocky asteroid called 3200 Phaethon that leaves a wake of fiery debris like a comet. Its orbit brings it very close to the Sun, and when this happens, bits of rock break off in the heat and trail the object through space. (Some astronomers refer to 3200 Phaethon as a "rock comet.")

When the Earth passes through the tail, the debris burns up in the atmosphere, producing a bright show that's visible from the ground. And because the matter that trails 3200 Phaethon is denser than what you'd find behind a comet, it takes longer to burn up, creating a brighter spark and sometimes breaking up into multiple meteorites. This year viewers can expect to see more than one meteor a minute with up to 100 meteors per hour at the shower's peak.

The shower peaks the night of Thursday, December 13 and early Friday morning on December 14. The best time to watch is when the skies are darkest, usually around 2 a.m. local time. Unlike two years ago, when the Geminids coincided with a supermoon, the Moon will set around midnight on Thursday so viewing conditions will be ideal.

The Geminid meteor shower is visible around the world, though it's most prominent in the northern hemisphere. As is the case with all celestial events, people who live as far away from cities as possible will get the best view, but even people watching from the suburbs could catch as many as 30 meteors an hour.

[h/t Space.com]

Did NASA Ever Consider Women for the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo Programs?

Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images
Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

Unambiguously, no.

This was not sexism. NASA decided early on, and quite correctly, that early astronauts must all be experienced high-performance jet test pilots. To anyone who understands what the early space program involved, there can be little question that choosing all men was the right call. That's because there were zero women in the country with high-performance test flight experience—which was due to sexism.

You may have heard of the so-called “Mercury 13” or the Women in Space Program, both of which are misleading monikers invented by the press and/or American aviator Jerrie Cobb.

Here’s what happened:

Randy Lovelace’s laboratory tested astronaut candidates to help NASA select the initial seven Mercury astronauts. He later ran Jerrie Cobb through the same Phase I (biomedical) tests (though not through the other tests, as he didn’t have access to equipment owned by the military). Contrary to some reports, Cobb did not test superior to the men overall, but she did test as well overall. And while that should not have been a surprise to anyone, it was in fact a surprise to many.

Lovelace published a paper on the work in which he suggested that women might actually be preferable candidates for space travel since they weigh less on average and consume less oxygen, water, and other consumables, a fact which I exploited in my book, For All Mankind, and I can tell you that on a long duration mission (of several months) the difference really does add up.

This had no effect on Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo, all of which were short little jaunts in which the mass of the astronauts wasn’t terribly critical, and all of which were always going to be flown by high-performance test pilots anyway.

However, it attracted the attention of famed aviation pioneer Jackie Cochran, who agreed to fund further research on the suitability of women for space.

Pioneer American aviator Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cochran and Cobb recruited several more women, mostly from the ranks of the Ninety-Nines, a women aviator’s professional organization founded by Amelia Earhart. These women also went through the initial biomedical testing, and 13 passed at the same standard as met by the Mercury astronauts.

So far so good. Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations, and Lovelace secured verbal agreement through his contacts to send another group to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine for advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.

However, no one had authorized the use of the military facilities for this purpose—or the costs that it would entail. Since there was no NASA request behind this effort, once Lovelace tried to move forward, the military refused his access.

Meanwhile, Cobb had been enjoying the attention she was receiving and, according to some, had gotten it into her head that all of this was going to lead to some of the women actually flying in space. In fact, I’ve found no evidence that Lovelace ever implied that. This was a small program of scientific study, nothing more. Nevertheless, Cobb flew to Washington, D.C. along with Jane Hart and was given a meeting with then-vice president Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was congenial—Cobb has always claimed he pledged his support—but immediately afterward, he sent word to have all support for the experiments withdrawn.

Far be it from me to defend the motives of LBJ, but consider this: The president had publicly committed the nation to returning a crew from the moon by the end of the decade—and this was at right about the same time when enough work had been done for Johnson to have a handle on just how hard that was going to be. He may or may not have supported the idea of women astronauts in general—we have no idea—but Jerrie Cobb standing before the press, pushing for “women in space” was definitely, irrefutably a distraction he didn’t need. And any resources devoted to it were being pulled directly away from the moon shot—which, to Johnson, was the goal.

Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
NASA, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cobb has always maintained the women were misled and betrayed. I’ve found no evidence of that. Testimony of many of the other participants suggests that Cobb simply got carried away—not that anyone could blame her. Let’s remember that at that time, she couldn’t have known what was really involved in space flight or what the program would look like over the next decade. No one did.

Of course, American women did start flying in space with the Space Shuttle. Do not for a moment think this means they didn’t face the same prejudices at NASA that they did everywhere else. The first class of women astronauts was, according to my sources, invited to help design an in-flight cosmetics kit—an offer they immediately and forcefully shot down. Thirty years later, women remain a distinct minority in the U.S. astronaut corps ...

The bigger question is not whether Cobb was betrayed, but why, in 1961, not a single U.S. woman had been hired to work in high-performance flight test—considering that so many (like Cobb, for example) had performed test flight and ferry duties during the war.

Why weren’t women welcome in the post-war aerospace economy, and why—even today—are so few women granted degrees in engineering of any sort? I don’t know the answer, though sexism is unquestionably in the mix, but it’s a question we need to address as a nation.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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