More Massive, New Measurements Show

Fasten your seat belts — we’re faster, heavier, and more likely to collide than we thought. Astronomers making high-precision measurements of the Milky Way say our home Galaxy is rotating about 100,000 miles per hour faster than previously understood.

That increase in speed, said Mark Reid, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, increases the Milky Way’s mass by 50 percent, bringing it even with the Andromeda Galaxy. “No longer will we think of the Milky Way as the little sister of the Andromeda Galaxy in our Local Group family.”

The larger mass, in turn, means a greater gravitational pull that increases the likelihood of collisions with the Andromeda galaxy or smaller nearby galaxies.

Our Solar System is about 28,000 light-years from the Milky Way’s center. At that distance, the new observations indicate, we’re moving at about 600,000 miles per hour in our Galactic orbit, up from the previous estimate of 500,000 miles per hour.

The scientists are using the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope to remake the map of the Milky Way. Taking advantage of the VLBA’s unparalleled ability to make extremely detailed images, the team is conducting a long-term program to measure distances and motions in our Galaxy. They reported their results at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Long Beach, California.

The scientists observed regions of prolific star formation across the Galaxy. In areas within these regions, gas molecules are strengthening naturally-occuring radio emission in the same way that lasers strengthen light beams. These areas, called cosmic masers, serve as bright landmarks for the sharp radio vision of the VLBA. By observing these regions repeatedly at times when the Earth is at opposite sides of its orbit around the Sun, the astronomers can measure the slight apparent shift of the object’s position against the background of more-distant objects.

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