New astronomical findings have the potential to change our whole conception of the Milky Way galaxy. An international team of astronomers based in South Africa and the University of Tokyo have published new data in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society that show the existence of a large, mysterious space at the center of our galaxy that is completely devoid of new stars.

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The Milky Way galaxy

The team of astronomers conducted a wide survey of all of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, analyzing each star’s brightness and regular patterns of pulsation, which can be used to measure stars’ distances from Earth. Researchers discovered that there is a vast section devoid of new stars radiating out from the heart of the galaxy. Researchers have dubbed this region the Extreme Inner Disk.

The Extreme Inner Disk, a region of our galaxy in which no new stars are being formed.

In this disk, no young stars stars called Cepheids are being formed. According to study co-author Giuseppe Bono, this means that the center of the Milky Way is essentially ‘dead’ in terms of star formation, which is changing current understandings about our galaxy:

The current results indicate that there has been no significant star formation in this large region over hundreds of millions years. The movement and the chemical composition of the new Cepheids are helping us to better understand the formation and evolution of the Milky Way.

Cepheids are a key source of study for astronomers to better understand our universe, since their distribution sheds some light on how the galaxy formed and changed over time. While there were no Cepheids found in this barren center, many of the young stars were found in regions just beyond the dead space.

According to the published data, this new finding could lead to a complete picture of our galaxy:

[...] recent infrared surveys are revealing populations of Cepheids in a large area of the Galaxy, including the opposite side of the disc beyond the bulge. Detailed observations of these objects, such as high-resolution spectroscopy for radial velocities and metallicities, would provide a new path to a global picture of Galactic structure and evolution.


The South African Astronomical Observatory, where this new data was discovered.

The dead space in our galaxy extends roughly 8,000 light years out from the center; our Sun, meanwhile, is around 26,000 light years away from the center. Our sun, luckily, is expected to increase in temperature, size, and brightness for about 5 billion more years - before it goes supernova and destroys the solar system. Sorry, Pluto, you just can’t catch a break.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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