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NASA's Chandra Shows Milky Way is Surrounded by Halo of Hot Gas

Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to find evidence our Milky Way Galaxy is embedded in an enormous halo of hot gas that extends for hundreds of thousands of light years. The estimated mass of the halo is comparable to the mass of all the stars in the galaxy. 

If the size and mass of this gas halo is confirmed, it also could be an explanation for what is known as the "missing baryon" problem for the galaxy. 

Baryons are particles, such as protons and neutrons, that make up more than 99.9 percent of the mass of atoms found in the cosmos. Measurements of extremely distant gas halos and galaxies indicate the baryonic matter present when the universe was only a few billion years old represented about one-sixth the mass and density of the existing unobservable, or dark, matter. In the current epoch, about 10 billion years later, a census of the baryons present in stars and gas in our galaxy and nearby galaxies shows at least half the baryons are unaccounted for. 

In a recent study, a team of five astronomers used data from Chandra, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space observatory and Japan's Suzaku satellite to set limits on the temperature, extent and mass of the hot gas halo. Chandra observed eight bright X-ray sources located far beyond the galaxy at distances of hundreds of millions of light-years. The data revealed X-rays from these distant sources are absorbed selectively by oxygen ions in the vicinity of the galaxy. The scientists determined the temperature of the absorbing halo is between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvins, or a few hundred times hotter than the surface of the sun. 

Other studies have shown that the Milky Way and other galaxies are embedded in warm gas with temperatures between 100,000 and 1 million kelvins. Studies have indicated the presence of a hotter gas with a temperature greater than 1 million kelvins. This new research provides evidence the hot gas halo enveloping the Milky Way is much more massive than the warm gas halo. 

"We know the gas is around the galaxy, and we know how hot it is," said Anjali Gupta, lead author of The Astrophysical Journal paper describing the research. "The big question is, how large is the halo, and how massive is it?" 

To begin to answer this question, the authors supplemented Chandra data on the amount of absorption produced by the oxygen ions with XMM-Newton and Suzaku data on the X-rays emitted by the gas halo. They concluded that the mass of the gas is equivalent to the mass in more than 10 billion suns, perhaps as large as 60 billion suns. 

"Our work shows that, for reasonable values of parameters and with reasonable assumptions, the Chandra observations imply a huge reservoir of hot gas around the Milky Way," said co-author Smita Mathur of Ohio State University in Columbus. "It may extend for a few hundred thousand light-years around the Milky Way or it may extend farther into the surrounding local group of galaxies. Either way, its mass appears to be very large." 

The estimated mass depends on factors such as the amount of oxygen relative to hydrogen, which is the dominant element in the gas. Nevertheless, the estimation represents an important step in solving the case of the missing baryons, a mystery that has puzzled astronomers for more than a decade. 

Baryons are particles, such as protons and neutrons, which make up more than 99.9 percent of the mass of atoms found in the cosmos. Measurements of extremely distant gas halos and galaxies indicate the baryonic matter present when the universe was only a few billion years old represented about one-sixth the mass and density of the existing unobservable, or dark, matter. In the current epoch, about 10 billion years later, a census of the baryons present in stars and gas in our galaxy and nearby galaxies shows at least half the baryons are unaccounted for. 

Although there are uncertainties, the work by Gupta and colleagues provides the best evidence yet that the galaxy's missing baryons have been hiding in a halo of million-kelvin gas that envelopes the galaxy. The estimated density of this halo is so low that similar halos around other galaxies would have escaped detection. 

The paper describing these results was published in the Sept. 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Other co-authors were Yair Krongold of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City; Fabrizio Nicastro of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.; and Massimiliano Galeazzi of University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. 

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; NASA/CXC/Ohio State/A.Gupta et al.
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/news/H-12-331.html
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Introduction

The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Earth.[11][nb 1] This name derives from its appearance as a dim "milky" glowing band arching across the night sky, in which the naked eye cannot distinguish individual stars. The term "Milky Way" is a translation of the Classical Latin via lactea, from theHellenistic Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος (pr. galaxías kýklos, "milky circle").[12][13][14] The Milky Way appears like a band because it is a disk-shaped structure being viewed from inside. The fact that this faint band of light is made up of stars was proven in 1610 when Galileo Galilei used his telescope to resolve it into individual stars. In the 1920s, observations by astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter containing 200–400 billion stars. It may contain at least as manyplanets, with an estimated 10 billion of those orbiting in the habitable zone of their parent stars.[15][not in citation given] The Solar System is located within the disk, around two thirds of the way out from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of a spiral-shaped concentration of gas and dust called the Orion–Cygnus Arm. The stars in the inner ≈10,000 light-years are organized in abulge and one or more bars. The very center is marked by an intense radio source named Sagittarius A* which is likely to be a supermassive black hole. The Galaxy rotates differentially, faster towards the center and slower towards the outer edge. The rotational period is about 200 million years at the position of the Sun.[8] The Galaxy as a whole is moving at a velocity of 552 to 630 km per second, depending on the relative frame of reference. It is estimated to be about 13.2 billion years old, nearly as old as the Universe. Surrounded by several smaller satellite galaxies, the Milky Way is part of the Local Group of galaxies, which forms a subcomponent of the Virgo Supercluster.