A 12-year study of massive stars has reaffirmed that our Galaxy has four spiral arms, following years of debate sparked by images taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope that only showed two arms.
Astronomers cannot see what our Galaxy, which is called the Milky Way, looks like because we are on the inside looking out. But they can deduce its shape by careful observation of its stars and their distances from us.
"The Milky Way is our galactic home and studying its structure gives us a unique opportunity to understand how a very typical spiral galaxy works in terms of where stars are born and why," said Professor Melvin Hoare, a member of the RMS Survey Team in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the research paper.
In the 1950s astronomers used radio telescopes to map our Galaxy. Their observations focussed on clouds of gas in the Milky Way in which new stars are born, revealing four major arms. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, on the other hand, scoured the Galaxy for infrared light emitted by stars. It was announced in 2008 that Spitzer had found about 110 million stars, but only evidence of two spiral arms.
The astronomers behind the new study used several radio telescopes in Australia, USA and China to individually observe about 1650 massive stars that had been identified by the RMS Survey. From their observations, the distances and luminosities of the massive stars were calculated, revealing a distribution across four spiral arms.
"It isn't a case of our results being right and those from Spitzer's data being wrong – both surveys were looking for different things," said Professor Hoare. "Spitzer only sees much cooler, lower mass stars – stars like our Sun – which are much more numerous than the massive stars that we were targeting."