Last modified on 8 February 2010, at 12:57

General Astronomy/The Milky Way

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy which forms part of the Local Group. Although the Milky Way is but one of billions of galaxies in the universe, the Galaxy has special significance to humanity as it is the home of the solar system. Democritus (460 BC - 370 BC) was the first known person to claim that the Milky Way consists of distant stars.

The term "milky" originates from the hazy band of white light appearing across the celestial sphere visible from Earth, which comprises stars and other material lying within the galactic plane. The galaxy appears brightest in the direction of Sagittarius, towards the galactic center.

Relative to the celestial equator, the Milky Way passes as far north as the constellation of Cassiopeia and as far south as the constellation of Crux, indicating the high inclination of Earth's equatorial plane and the plane of the ecliptic relative to the galactic plane. The fact that the Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the solar system lies close to the galactic plane.

The Milky Way Galaxy is about 80-100 thousand light years in diameter, about 3,000 light years in thickness, and about 250-300 thousand light years in circumference. It is composed of 200 to 400 billion stars (exact number not yet known). As a guide to the relative physical scale of the Milky Way, if the galaxy were reduced to 130 km (80 mi) in diameter, the solar system would be a mere 2 mm (0.08 in) in width.

The Milky Way's absolute magnitude, which cannot be measured directly, is assumed by astronomical convention to be −20.5.