The Milky Way Galaxy photo

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The Milky Way and other galaxies


An infrared COBE* photo of our own Milky Way Galaxy seen edge-on from within. "Galaxy" comes from the Greek galaxias (γαλαξίας), or kyklos (galaktikos) meaning "milky circle." In Greek mythology Zeus placed his mortal son Hercules (Roman Hercules) on his wife Hera's breast while she was sleeping so that by drinking her milk Heracles would become immortal. Hera woke up in the process, and finding a strange baby at her breast thrust him away from her. In doing so her milk sprayed out across the sky and created the band of stars we now see as the Milky Way. "Milky Way" appeared for the first time in the English language in 1380 in the poem House of Fame by Chaucer: "See yonder, lo, the Galaxyë/Which men clepeth the Milky Wey,/For hit is whyt."

The Milky Way is 100,000 light years wide, 10,000 light years thick in the central bulge, and 3000 light years thick in the spiral arms (a light year is six trillion miles). Our Sun is an average yellow star in a spiral of about 200 billion stars, planets, and clouds of interstellar gas known collectively as the Milky Way Galaxy. An infrared photo of the Milky Way is shown above. Half way from its center to its outer edge, the Sun takes a quarter of a billion years to revolve once around it. If all of the stars in our galaxy were each a grain of sand, they would cover an entire football field to a depth of half an inch. Yet each one of those grains of sand contains 20 million times as many molecules as there are stars in our entire Milky Way Galaxy!


*COBE is an acronym for The Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to measure the diffuse infrared and background microwave radiation from the early universe's  diffuse infrared and microwave radiation just after the Big Bang. Launched in 1989 it carried three instruments: a Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) to compare the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation with an ideal absorber and emitter of radiation (blackbody), a Differential Microwave Radiometer (DMR) to sensitively map the cosmic radiation, and a Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE) to search for the cosmic infrared background radiation.



Above is the beautiful Whirlpool galaxy, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Canes Venatici (the hunting dogs held on a leash by Bootes as he hunts for the bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, itself a minor constellation invented by Johannes Hevelius in 1687). It can be seen with a pair of binoculars at the end of the handle of the big dipper. Similar to our own Milky way, it is 23 million light years distant and contains about 160 billion solar masses. One "solar mass" is the weight—more accurately, the mass—of our Sun. Astronomers use the phrase "solar masses" because using the laws of physics they can "weigh" a galaxy but cannot count the stars in it.

Also known as NGC (New Galactic Catalogue) 5194, or M51, it was the 51st object found by Charles Messier in 1773. This is also the first galaxy to be recognized as a spiral by Lord Rosse using his 72" reflecting telescope in 1845. If this were a photo of our own Milky Way galaxy, our Sun would be halfway to the outer edge. M51 Hubble Remix: S. Beckwith (STScI), Hubble Heritage Team, (STScI/AURA), ESA, NASA, with superb additional processing by Robert Gendler.



In 1845 William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, had an immense 72" reflecting telescope (above) built for himself at Birr castle in central Ireland. With a 3-ton metal mirror suspended between 45-foot stone walls, it was the largest telescope in the world for three-quarters of a century. With his "Leviathan" Lord Rosse was able to see the spiral structure in the gas clouds or nebulae discovered some 80 years earlier by Charles Messier. And 80 years after Parsons, Edwin Hubble identified them as galaxies like our own island universe, the Milky Way.

This Milky Way Galaxy 200 billion Stars page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.


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