Carbon Monoxide Reveals New Milky Way Arm

Our Milky Way Galaxy’s elemental form is hypothesized to be a barred structure – made up of two major spiral arms originating at both poles of the central bar. But from our vantage point, we can only see portions of those arms. Because of huge amounts of dust literally blocking our view, we can’t be as confident of our structure as other galaxies we can study as a whole. However, by “sniffing our galaxy’s tailpipe”, we’re able to judge our structure just a little bit better.

The Milky Way’s basic structure is believed to involve two main spiral arms emanating from opposite ends of an elongated central bar. But only parts of the arms can be seen – gray segments indicate portions not yet detected. Other known spiral arm segments–including the Sun’s own spur–are omitted for clarity. Credit: T. Dame

We’re all aware of theoretical models of the Milky Way… a sprawling, pinwheel-like structure with sweeping, grandiose arms loaded with stars, gases and dust. We’re also aware our solar system is lodged in a spur of those arms, slowly orbiting and located about 25,000 light-years from the center. But hard and fast details of our galaxy haven’t been possible until now. Thanks to the use of radio waves, we’re able to cut through the murk and see wavelengths that give us clues. These architectural hints are coming to us in the forms of molecules like carbon monoxide – a great tracer of our galactic format.

Using a small 1.2-meter radio telescope on the roof of their science building in Cambridge, CfA astronomers Tom Dame and Pat Thaddeus used carbon monoxide emissions to ferret out proof there is more spiral structure located in the most distant parts of our galactic home. What they uncovered was a previously reported new spiral arm at the far end of the Scutum-Centaurus Arm – but how they did it was by verifying vast, dense concentrations of this molecular gas.

Where does it come from? Try the “exhaust” of carbon stars. These late-type stars have an atmosphere which is higher in carbon than oxygen. When the two combine in the upper layers of the star they create carbon monoxide. It also happens in “normal” stars like our sun, too. It’s richer in oxygen than carbon, but still cool enough to form carbon monoxide.

“After preliminary Galactic surveys in the mid-1970′s revealed the vast extent of CO emission on the sky,” says Dame, “It became clear that even with the relatively large beams of the 1.2 meter telescopes a sensitive, well-sampled survey of the entire Galaxy would require many years.”

And it’s time has come…

Original Story Source: Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.