'Warped' Shape of the Milky Way Revealed in New Detailed 3D Map

A new map of our galaxy is the most detailed visualization of the Milky Way yet.
Chris Young

Our galaxy has been charted in the most detailed 3D map to date.

The new map, compiled by measuring the distance from our sun to thousands of individual pulsating Cepheid stars scattered throughout the Milky Way, shows that our galaxy is not flat, but is "warped and twisted," researchers say.


Cepheid distribution

The new study and map are based on the distribution of Cepheids — variable stars that burn hundreds, if not thousands of times brighter than our own Sun and pulsate at regular intervals.

'Warped' Shape of the Milky Way Revealed in New Detailed 3D Map
A Cepheid star. Source: Hubble Space Telescope

They are used by scientists as distance markers; the fact that a Cepheid's brightness changes over time mean that scientists have figured out they can study its luminosity variability to calculate the average luminosity.

The average luminosity can then be used as a distance marker, as it allows researchers to compare the star's brightness to that of the Sun and estimate the Cepheid's distance from our solar system.

Other stars don't vary in brightness at a regular rate, meaning we can't know their average luminosity — and therefore cannot estimate their distance as accurately.

Cepheids are also easier to find as their brightness makes them visible through clouds of interstellar dust that often obscure dimmer stars throughout our galaxy and beyond.

'Warped' Shape of the Milky Way Revealed in New Detailed 3D Map
The Warsaw Telescope and Galactic Cepheids from OGLE. Source: K. Ulaczyk / J. Skowron / OGLE

Warped Milky Way

Published in the journal Science, the study compiled data from more than 2,400 Cepheids. As the Guardian reports, this allowed for the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way yet.

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It shows a Milky Way that is warped in shape. 

“The stars 60,000 light years away from the Milky Way’s center are as far as 4,500 [light years] above or below the galactic plane – this is a big percentage,” Dr. Dorota Skowron of the University of Warsaw and first author of the latest research told the Guardian.

"Our map shows the Milky Way disk is not flat. It is warped and twisted," co-author Przemek Mroz said in a press release. "This is the first time we can use individual objects to show this in three dimensions."

A video created by the research team also shows the warped shape of our galaxy, as detailed in their map.

The act of measuring distances of our own galaxy from the inside might be harder than measuring that of far-off constellations. This new research by University of Warsaw scientists is the most detailed attempt yet.

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