"Warped & Twisted" --First 3D Map Unveils Milky Way's Real Shape

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Because they are so bright, Cepheids can be clearly seen millions of light years away and can be easily distinguished from other bright stars in their vicinity, making them indispensable tools in any astronomers' kit.

A new study by the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) might explain the Milky Way's spiral appearance - it's warped.

Classical Cepheids are young stars that are some four to 20 times as massive as the sun and up to 100,000 times as bright. They used 1,339 pulsating stars - young, newly catalogued stars bigger and brighter than our sun - to map the galaxy's shape.

Scientists in Australia and China created the galactic map by measuring the distances to more than 1,300 large, pulsating stars that together reveal the true shape of the Milky Way. The units "kpc" (kiloparsecs) along the image's three axes are used by astronomers to indicate distances on galaxy-wide scales.

Lead researcher Xiaodian Chen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said it's hard to determine distances from the sun to the Milky Way's fringes, "without having a clear idea of what that disc actually looks like". "This offers new insights into the formation of our home galaxy".

Artist's impression of the warped and twisted Milky Way disk.

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Astronomers from from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences shared their map in the journal Nature Astronomy. The energetic stars pulsate, and by messing the timing of the stellar pulses and the changes in brightness, scientists can accurately measure their distance from Earth and the sun.

Scientists have known since the 1950s that the spiral-shaped Milky Way's disk is warped, bending by thousands of light-years at its outskirts. "The twisting of the warp is new", says astronomer and study co-author Richard deGrijs of Macquarie University in Australia.

"This research provides a crucial updated map for studies of our Galaxy's stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way's disk", said co-author Dr. Licai Deng, also from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A dozen other galaxies with similar progressively twisted spiral patterns in their outer regions have been observed - so the Milky Way's shape is rare but not unique.

This is the mysterious invisible material that provides the gravitational "glue" that holds galaxies together. We know the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy - a thin disk of a hundred billion stars that circle around a huge supermassive black hole at the galaxy's centre.

The resulting resource enabled the team to predict that the hydrogen gas in the outer reaches of the disk was not confined to a thin plane but would actually appear like a warped S-shape if observed from a distance.