Lots To See In The Milky Way: A Beginner’s Guide

You see the Milky Way as a hazy band of lights stretching across the night sky. In this article, I cover what to know about the Milky Way, especially in understanding what we can or can’t see as backyard astronomers.

understanding the milky way

Scientists postulate that the Milky Way formed around 13.6 billion years ago. The theory is that it started as a small, dense cloud of gas and dust that collapsed under its own gravity, eventually forming a rotating disk.

What makes up the Milky way – its composition

The Milky Way is made up of various types of matter, including stars, gas, and dust. About 90% of the mass of the galaxy is in the form of dark matter, which is a type of matter that does not interact with light and is therefore invisible. The remaining 10% of the mass is in the form of visible matter, such as stars, gas, and dust.

It is estimated to contain between 100 billion and 400 billion stars. They are classified into different star types based on their temperature and brightness. The most common type of star in the galaxy is the red dwarf, which is a small and relatively cool star that is much less luminous than the Sun.

The Milky Way also contains white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes.

the Milky Way size and shape

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy containing billions of stars, planets, and other celestial objects.

One of the biggest challenges for us observers to comprehend is its sheer size. The galaxy is estimated to be around 100,000 light-years in diameter, which means that it would take light 100,000 years to travel from one end of it to the other.

The other thing to comprehend is that the Milky Way is not static. It’s constantly evolving and changing, with stars being born, dying, and moving all the time.

The Milky Way is shaped like a disk with a central bulge. The disk is about 1000 light years thick and is surrounded by a halo of stars that extends up to 100,000 light years from the center of the galaxy.

This image depicts the various components in its structure and shape and phenomena around it.

SMC: Small Magellanic Cloud; LMC: Large Magellanic Cloud. Image credit: Pablo Carlos Budassi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s said that major events shaped its current form, which include:

  • Central bulge
    This is a dense concentration of stars at its center.
  • Galactic halo
    The spherical region surrounding it that is made up of old stars and globular clusters.
  • Galactic disk
    The flattened region that contains most of the Milky Way’s stars, gas, and dust. By the way…It’s not perfectly flat. Studies reveal that the disk becomes increasingly warped in parts far away from the Milky Way’s center.
  • Spiral arms
    These are thought to have formed through the gravitational interactions between stars and gas in the disk. There are four of these, and Earth orbits in our solar system within one, namely the Orion Arm.

Our home, Earth, is located in the Orion Arm, a relatively quiet part of the Milky Way, far from the central bulge and the most active regions of star formation in the spiral arms.

Visible Features to backyard astronomers

The feature most prominent to us amateur observers is the Milky Way’s galactic plane. Most of the galaxy’s stars and gas exist on this plane. It’s what we see as the light and cloud band across the night sky and what we know as the ‘Milky Way’.

Other visible features of the Milky Way are dark constellations. This is not a traditional constellation recognized by astronomers, but rather a a region of the sky that appears dark to the naked eye.

The southern hemisphere gives the best views of the Milky Way and among the visible features depicted from this southern perspective are dark constellations.

One example, seen in the southern hemisphere, is the Dark Emu. Named by the traditional people of Australia, it is a dark constellation and subject of aboriginal mythology. The Incas also recognized dark constellations in the Milky Way.

You’ll also see open clusters, which are groups of stars visible to the naked eye as fuzzy patches of light within the Milky Way. Try looking through your telescope to see more detail. These are relatively young, with ages typically ranging from a few million to a few billion years.

Some of these objects are in the Messier catalog. The Pleiades cluster, for example, is a Messier Object that’s easy to find and is located within the Milky Way galaxy. It is a relatively nearby open star cluster that is visible to the naked eye in the night sky from Earth.

As a backyard astronomer in the southern hemisphere, you can also get to see the large and small Magellanic Clouds.

Magellanic clouds

Magellanic Clouds are two irregular dwarf galaxies that we can see from Earth as shown in this image
Magellanic Clouds. Image credit: ESO/S. Brunier (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Magellanic Clouds are two irregular dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way galaxy and are members of the Local Group. They are named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, whose crew first observed them during their voyage around the world in the early 16th century.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are seen from the southern hemisphere with the naked eye in dark skies. They appear as faint, fuzzy patches of light and are often described as looking like two small clouds.

Emission nebulae

There are many emission nebulae located within the Milky Way galaxy, including the famous Orion Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, and the Eagle Nebula, among others.

Orion nebula as it looks to us from Earth
Orion Nebula (lower middle) in the constellation of Orion. Image credit: Skatebiker 

We see these nebulae with the naked eye as faint, fuzzy patches of light in the night sky, and they can be seen from Earth with the aid of decent telescopes or binoculars.

Emission nebulae are clouds of ionized gas that emit light at various wavelengths, including visible light. They are often associated with regions of active star formation, where the intense radiation from young, hot stars ionizes the surrounding gas.

Other fascinating features include the following but don’t expect to see these using amateur astronomy gear.

Streams around the Milky Way

We cannot see the streams wrapping the Milky Way with our naked eyes, but astronomers have been able to study these using advanced telescopes and imaging techniques, including telescopes that can detect different types of light, such as infrared and radio waves.

By studying the streams, astronomers learn more about the structure and history of our galaxy, as well as the process of galaxy evolution through mergers and interactions.

Sagittarius Stream

The Sagittarius Stream is a long, complex structure made of stars that wrap around the Milky Way galaxy in an orbit that nearly crosses the galactic poles. It consists of tidally stripped stars from the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, resulting from the process of merging with the Milky Way over a period of billions of years.

Helmi Stream

The Helmi Stream is a long, narrow structure made up of stars that wrap around the Milky Way galaxy in an orbit that is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the galaxy. It is thought to be the remnant of a small dwarf galaxy that was disrupted and absorbed by the Milky Way billions of years ago.

Magellanic stream

The Magellanic Stream is a long, ribbon-like structure made up of gas that wraps around the Milky Way galaxy in an orbit that is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the galaxy. It is thought to have been formed by the gravitational interaction between the Milky Way and the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, two small satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way.

Gamma-ray bubble

We can’t see the gamma-ray bubble as a backyard astronomer. We rely on astronomers using the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and other instruments to tell us about this phenomenon, first discovered in 2010

They tell us that the gamma-ray bubble comprises high-energy gamma rays that extend above and below the plane of our galaxy for tens of thousands of light-years.

The gamma-ray bubble is thought to be the result of a burst of star formation that occurred in the Milky Way’s central region several million years ago. The burst of star formation produced massive stars that exploded as supernovae, releasing large amounts of energy in the form of gamma rays. Over time, the gamma rays from these explosions accumulated in the region around the galactic center, creating the bubble-like structure that we observe today.

Artist's conception of the Milky Way galaxy as seen from far Galactic North (in Coma Berenices) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/R.
Artist’s conception of the Milky Way galaxy as seen from far Galactic North (in Coma Berenices) by NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Showing Solar System.

Observing the Milky Way Galaxy

To better understand the Milky Way Galaxy, professional astronomers use both ground-based and space-based telescopes to study the galaxy. Ground-based telescopes are located on Earth and can provide high-resolution images of the Milky Way’s visible features.

Space-based telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, can observe the galaxy without the interference of Earth’s atmosphere and provide clearer images.

Another technique used to study the Milky Way is radio astronomy. Radio telescopes can detect radio waves emitted by celestial objects, including the Milky Way. This method allows astronomers to study the galaxy’s structure and magnetic fields.

In addition to telescopes and radio astronomy, scientists also use computer simulations and models to study the Milky Way. These simulations can help researchers understand the galaxy’s formation, evolution, and behavior.

Current Understanding of the Milky Way Galaxy

The galaxy’s dynamics are governed by the gravitational forces of its various components. The stars in the disk orbit around the galactic center in a roughly circular path, while the stars in the bulge and central bar move in more complex orbits. The spiral arms are regions where gas and dust are compressed, leading to the formation of new stars.

Unanswered Questions

Despite our current understanding of the Milky Way, there are still many unanswered questions about its structure and evolution. For example, scientists are still trying to determine the precise number of spiral arms and their locations. Additionally, the nature of dark matter, which makes up most of the galaxy’s mass, remains a mystery.

Another area of active research is the origin of the Milky Way’s disk and bulge. Scientists are trying to understand how these structures formed and evolved over time. Some theories suggest that they formed from the merging of smaller galaxies, while others propose that they formed from the collapse of gas and dust in the early universe.