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25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy

The Milky Way Galaxy consists of a thin disk containing dust, gas, and young and old stars; a spherical halo containing populations of very old stars, including RR Lyrae variable stars and globular star clusters; a thick, more diffuse disk with stars that have properties intermediate between those in the thin disk and the halo; a peanut-shaped nuclear bulge of mostly old stars around the center; and a supermassive black hole at the very center. The Sun is located roughly halfway out of the Milky Way, about 26,000 light-years from the center.

25.2 Spiral Structure

The gaseous distribution in the Galaxy’s disk has two main spiral arms that emerge from the ends of the central bar, along with several fainter arms and short spurs; the Sun is located in one of those spurs. Measurements show that the Galaxy does not rotate as a solid body, but instead its stars and gas follow differential rotation, such that the material closer to the galactic center completes its orbit more quickly. Observations show that galaxies like the Milky Way take several billion years after they began to form to develop spiral structure.

25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy

The Sun revolves completely around the galactic center in about 225 million years (a galactic year). The mass of the Galaxy can be determined by measuring the orbital velocities of stars and interstellar matter. The total mass of the Galaxy is about 2×10122×1012 MSun. As much as 95% of this mass consists of dark matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation and can be detected only because of the gravitational force it exerts on visible stars and interstellar matter. This dark matter is located mostly in the Galaxy’s halo; its nature is not well understood at present.

25.4 The Center of the Galaxy

A supermassive black hole is located at the center of the Galaxy. Measurements of the velocities of stars located within a few light-days of the center show that the mass inside their orbits around the center is about 4.6 million MSun. Radio observations show that this mass is concentrated in a volume with a diameter similar to that of Mercury’s orbit. The density of this matter concentration exceeds that of the densest known star clusters by a factor of nearly a million. The only known object with such a high density and total mass is a black hole.

25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy

We can roughly divide the stars in the Galaxy into two categories. Old stars with few heavy elements are referred to as population II stars and are found in the halo and in globular clusters. Population I stars contain more heavy elements than globular cluster and halo stars, are typically younger and found in the disk, and are especially concentrated in the spiral arms. The Sun is a member of population I. Population I stars formed after previous generations of stars had produced heavy elements and ejected them into the interstellar medium. The bulge stars, most of which are more than 10 billion years old, have unusually high amounts of heavy elements, presumably because there were many massive first-generation stars in this dense region, and these quickly seeded the next generations of stars with heavier elements.

25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy

The Galaxy began forming a little more than 13 billion years ago. Models suggest that the stars in the halo and globular clusters formed first, while the Galaxy was spherical. The gas, somewhat enriched in heavy elements by the first generation of stars, then collapsed from a spherical distribution to a rotating disk-shaped distribution. Stars are still forming today from the gas and dust that remain in the disk. Star formation occurs most rapidly in the spiral arms, where the density of interstellar matter is highest. The Galaxy captured (and still is capturing) additional stars and globular clusters from small galaxies that ventured too close to the Milky Way. In 3 to 4 billion years, the Galaxy will begin to collide with the Andromeda galaxy, and after about 7 billion years, the two galaxies will merge to form a giant elliptical galaxy.

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