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Science News Staff

Science Ticker

Science Ticker

Measured distance within the Milky Way gives clues to what our galaxy looks like

illustration of Milky Way

FROM THE INSIDE OUT  The best images of the Milky Way are artist’s impressions like this one, as it’s difficult to map the galaxy from our position inside it. But new measurements will give us more direct clues to what the Milky Way actually looks like.

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For the first time, astronomers have directly measured the distance to a spot clear across the galaxy. The established but challenging technique promises a new way to map the structure of the Milky Way.

This technique, called parallax, has measured distances to stars since the 1830s. But because of galactic dust in the way, it has been difficult to use parallax on stars on the opposite side of the galaxy. Other ways to measure distance are saddled with assumptions and uncertainties.

Alberto Sanna of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and his colleagues used the Very Long Baseline Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico to track a star-forming region in the outer Scutum-Centaurus spiral arm, which is on the opposite side of the Milky Way from the local arm where the sun resides. The scientists report in the October 13 Science that the region is more than 66,500 light-years away.

The team observed the distant spot from March 2014 to March 2015, and drew an imaginary triangle between it and two points in Earth’s orbit. They then used trigonometry to measure the distance.

“Our measurement is essentially the same as a surveyor uses to locate points on the Earth,” says study coauthor Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It requires no model or assumptions.”

Applying the same technique to other regions of the Milky Way will help astronomers figure out what our galaxy looks like from the outside and compare it to other spiral galaxies.

“We predict that, within the next 10 years, we will be able to answer the question: What does the Milky Way look like?” Sanna says.


Old barn owls aren’t hard of hearing

By Helen Thompson 7:05pm, September 19, 2017
A new study suggests that older barn owls hear just as well as younger ones.
Astronomy,, Planetary Science

These are Cassini’s parting shots of the Saturn system

By Lisa Grossman 12:09am, September 15, 2017
In its last hours before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, the Cassini spacecraft turned its cameras to some of the system’s well-known features.
Planetary Science

The Cassini probe dies tomorrow. Here’s how to follow its end

By Helen Thompson 2:30pm, September 14, 2017
Science News is on the scene at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the big finish of the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Astronomy,, Planetary Science

So long, Titan. Cassini snaps parting pics of Saturn’s largest moon

By Lisa Grossman 4:05pm, September 13, 2017
The last swing past Saturn’s largest moon sent Cassini heading directly towards the planet — and showed how future spacecraft will explore other moons.
Astronomy,, Planetary Science

Final flyby puts Cassini on a collision course with Saturn

By Lisa Grossman 4:00pm, September 11, 2017
A “last kiss goodbye” with Saturn’s largest moon sent the Cassini spacecraft on its final trajectory into the planet’s atmosphere.
Astronomy,, Planetary Science

Pluto’s pits, ridges and famous plain get official names

By Lisa Grossman 6:05pm, September 7, 2017
From Adlivun to Voyager, the International Astronomical Union officially names 14 surface features on the dwarf planet.
Animals,, Biophysics

Why bats crash into windows

By Helen Thompson 2:00pm, September 7, 2017
Smooth, vertical surfaces may be blind spots for bats and cause some animals to face-plant, study suggests.
Particle Physics

The results from a slew of experiments are in: Dark matter remains elusive

By Emily Conover 8:00am, September 6, 2017
Scientists continue the search for particles that make up the universe’s missing matter.
Archaeology,, Anthropology,, Human Evolution

People may have lived in Brazil more than 20,000 years ago

By Bruce Bower 7:00am, September 5, 2017
Stone Age humans left behind clues of their presence at a remote Brazilian rock shelter.
Anthropology,, Psychology

Spiritual convictions and group identities inspire terrorist acts, study finds

By Bruce Bower 11:00am, September 4, 2017
Sacred values and becoming one with comrades fuels terrorist acts, a report finds.
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