The inside of our Milky Way in 3D

September 12, 2013

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics have produced the first detailed three-dimensional map of the stars that form the inner regions of our Milky Way, using publicly available VVV survey data from the science archive facility at ESO. They find a box/peanut shaped bulge with an elongated bar and a prominent X-structure, which had been hinted at in previous studies. This indicates that the Milky Way was originally a pure disk of stars, which then formed a thin bar, before buckling into the box/peanut shape seen today. The new map can be used for more detailed studies of the dynamics and evolution of our Milky Way.

Our Sun resides right inside the galactic disk, about 27 000 light-years from the core of our Milky Way. Due to the obscuring effects of dense gas and dust clouds it is therefore difficult to get accurate information about the shape and properties of the inner regions of our galaxy. By using a large number of so-called “red clump” giant stars from the new VVV survey scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics have now produced a three-dimensional map of the galactic bulge.

Three-dimensional map of Milky Way's bulge, calculated from observations of red clump giant stars. This is the first time that such an accurate 3D-map has been reconstructed of the inner regions of our Milky Way. Because the map is 3D it can be rotated and viewed from different directions or detailed slices examined as shown in the video. The sun is shown in relation to the map but is not to scale.


“While several studies with red clump giants and other methods have found evidence for a triaxial structure of the galactic bulge, the depth of this star catalogue exceeds previous work and we can detect the entire population of red clump giants in all but the most highly obscured regions,” explains Christopher Wegg at MPE. “From this star distribution we can then directly infer the three-dimensional density map, without the need to compare to theoretical models.”


The 3D map viewed from the position of the Sun. Due to our position within the disk it is difficult to identify the detailed structure of the inner galaxy, despite covering a large region of the sky -- the moon is shown for scale.  The innermost 1 degree has been excluded from the analysis because of the very high amount of dust in this region.

The scientists used the VVV near-infrared survey of the bulge conducted with the VISTA telescope in Chile (“VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea Survey”), which covers the inner regions of the Milky Way and is able to observe stars thirty times fainter than previous bulge surveys. The observations were carried out by the VVV team, who then made their images and star catalogues available to the international community as science data products in the ESO science archive facility.


Vertical projection of the 3D-map: The Milky Way bulge from above. The elongated bar at 27 degrees to the sun is clearly visible.

Red clump giant stars were chosen for this study as they can be used as a standard candle: at this stage in the star’s lifetime their luminosity is approximately independent of their age or composition. The amount of gas and dust obscuring the stars is calculated directly from the observed colours of the red clump stars, so that their brightness distribution without obscuration can be measured. Because red clump stars have nearly the same intrinsic brightness, this gives approximate distances to each star. The good spatial coverage of the VVV survey allowed measurements across the whole inner region of the Milky Way, and from these the three-dimensional measurement of the structure of the bulge was constructed.


Horizontal projection of
 the 3D-map: The Milky Way from the side. The X-shaped structure is quite prominent, which had been hinted at in previous studies. Due of the different rotation rates of the bulge and the sun around the centre of the Milky Way this X-shape is how the center of the Milky Way would have looked from earth approximately 65 million years ago. By coincidence this is also the time at which the Chicxulub asteroid caused mass extinction of the dinosaurs - unfortunately dinosaurs were seemingly poor astronomers and apparently noticed neither. The white central band was excluded from the analysis because of the very high amount of dust in this region.

“In our analysis we find that the inner region of our galaxy is in the shape of a box/peanut, with a highly elongated bar and a prominent X-structure,” says Ortwin Gerhard, who leads the dynamics group at MPE. “It is the first time that we can see this clearly in our own Milky Way, and the simulations in our group show that this shape is fairly characteristic of a barred spiral galaxy." In these simulations performed by Inma Martinez-Valpuesta, the Milky Way was a pure disk of stars which formed a flat bar billions of years ago before the inner part of this then buckled to form the three-dimensional box/peanut shape seen in the map.


The scientists expect that this measurement of the three-dimensional density of the bulge will help to constrain galaxy evolution models for both our Milky Way and spiral galaxies in general. But will also support a number of further studies on different stellar populations, gas flows, or microlensing.

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