X Marks the Spot at the Centre of the Milky Way Galaxy

TORONTO [For Immediate Release] Two astronomers—with the help of Twitter—have uncovered the strongest evidence yet that an enormous X-shaped structure made of stars lies within the central bulge of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Previous computer models, observations of other galaxies, and observations of our own galaxy have suggested that the X-shaped structure existed. But no one had observed it directly; and some astronomers argued that previous research that pointed indirectly to the existence of the X could be explained in other ways.

Allsky w inset_300px

WISE all-sky image of Milky Way Galaxy. The circle is centred on the Galaxy’s central region. The inset shows an enhanced version of the same region that shows a clearer view of the X-shaped structure. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech; D. Lang/Dunlap Institute

“There was controversy about whether the X-shaped structure existed,” says Dustin Lang, a Research Associate at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, and co-author of the paper describing the discovery. “But our paper gives a good view of the core of our own galaxy. I think it has provided pretty good evidence for the existence of the X-shaped structure.”

The results appear in the July issue of the Astronomical Journal. The lead author is Melissa Ness, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg.

The Milky Way Galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy: a disk-shaped collection of dust, gas and billions of stars, 100,000 light-years in diameter. It is far from a simple disk structure, being comprised of two spiral arms, a bar-shaped feature that runs through its centre, and a central bulge of stars. The central bulge, like other barred galaxy’s bulges, resembles a rectangular box or peanut when viewed—as we view it—from within the plane of the galaxy. The X-shaped structure is an integral component of the bulge.


An enhanced, close-up view centred on the Galaxy’s bulge and the blue-tinted “X.” Credit: D. Lang/Dunlap Institute

Astronomers think the bulge could have formed in two different ways: it may have formed when the Milky Way Galaxy merged with other galaxies; or it may have formed without the help of external influences as an outgrowth of the bar, which itself forms from the evolving galactic disk. Lang and Ness’s finding supports the latter model which predicts the box- or peanut-shaped bulge and the galactic X.

This latest, clearest view of the bulge emerged when Lang re-analyzed previously released data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), a space telescope launched by NASA in 2009. Before ending its initial mission in 2011, WISE surveyed the entire sky in infrared—imaging three-quarters of a billion galaxies, stars and asteroids.

“The bulge is a key signature of formation of the Milky Way Galaxy,” says Ness. “If we understand the bulge we will understand the key processes that have formed and shaped our galaxy.”

“The shape of the bulge tells us about how it has formed. We see the X-shape and boxy morphology so clearly in the WISE image and this demonstrates that internal formation processes have been the ones driving the bulge formation.”

It is also evidence that our galaxy did not experience major merging events since the bulge formed. If it had, interactions with other galaxies would have disrupted its shape.

WISE tweet_300px

One of the original tweets showing the WISE map of the Milky Way Galaxy. The “X” is visible in the centre of the image. Credit: D. Lang; Dunlap Institute

Lang’s analysis was originally intended to aid in his research in mapping the web of galaxies beyond the Milky Way Galaxy. To help explore the maps he’d developed from the WISE data, he created an interactive map-browsing website and tweeted an image of the entire sky.

“Ness saw the tweet and immediately recognized the importance of the X-shaped structure,” says Lang. “We arranged to meet at an upcoming conference we were both attending. The paper was born from that meeting. That’s the power of large surveys and open science!”



The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Supplementary notes:

1) NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages and operates WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode in 2011, after it scanned the entire sky twice, thereby completing its main objectives. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. For more information on WISE: http://nasa.gov/wise

2) With contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


The X-shaped Bulge of the Milky Way Revealed by WISE:

Contact details:

Dr. Dustin Lang
Research Associate
Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Toronto
e: lang@dunlap.utoronto.ca
Skype: dstndstn
Google Chat: dstndstn@gmail.com
Twitter: @dstndstn

Chris Sasaki
Communications Coordinator, Public Information Officer
Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Toronto
p: 416-978-6613
e: csasaki@dunlap.utoronto.ca
w: dunlap.utoronto.ca

Dr. Melissa Ness
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy
Heidelberg, Germany
e: ness@mpia-hd.mpg.de
Twitter: @melissakness

Dr. Markus Poessel
Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy
Heidelberg, Germany
p: (+49 | 0) 6221 528-261
e: poessel@hda-hd.de

Elizabeth Landau
Media Relations Specialist
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, Calif.
p: (818) 354-6425
e: elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto is an endowed research institute with over 40 faculty, postdocs, students and staff, dedicated to innovative technology, groundbreaking research, world-class training, and public engagement. The research themes of its faculty and Dunlap Fellows span the Universe and include: optical, infrared and radio instrumentation, Dark Energy, large-scale structure, the Cosmic Microwave Background, the interstellar medium, galaxy evolution, cosmic magnetism and time-domain science. The Dunlap Institute, together with the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, and the Centre for Planetary Sciences, comprise the leading research centre for astronomy in Canada, at the leading research university in the country. The Dunlap Institute is committed to making its science, training and public outreach activities productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality or religion.