Peering to the Milky Way's far side

An artistic rendering of the Milky Way Galaxy.    
   Image NASA

An artistic rendering of the Milky Way Galaxy. Image NASA

In the case of the star-forming region called G007.47+00.05 at the other end of our galaxy, that would be "roughly equal to the angular size of a baseball on the Moon", according to a statement Thursday by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). "In terms of tracing and understanding the spiral structure, essentially half of the Milky Way is terra incognita". The last record for a parallax-based direct measurement was 36,000 light-years.

The astronomers used a time-honored distance-finding technique - trigonometric parallax - first used in 1838 to measure the distance to a star. Most of the stars and gas in our galaxy are within this newly-measured distance from the sun. Since we are inside the galaxy, it is hard for us to see its actual shape and structure, because that would require travelling hundreds of thousands of light-years, at the very least, to a distance from where the whole of the galaxy is visible face-on. With the VLBA, we now have the capability to measure enough distances to accurately trace the galaxy's spiral arms and learn their true shapes. You'll see your finger appear to shift with respect to background objects. Then they can use trigonometry to calculate the stars' distances.

Using the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), an interlinked system of 10 radio telescopes stretching across Hawaii, North America and the Caribbean, an worldwide team of astronomers have directly measured the distance to an object called G007.47+00.05, a star-forming region located on the opposite side of the galaxy from our solar system by looking for radio emissions from molecular gas clouds and massive, young stars, both of which typically reside in spiral arms. The smaller the angle, the greater the distance. This radio telescope system consists of 10 dish antennas distributed across North America, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.

The object that Dame and his colleagues measured is so far away that to determine its parallax, they had to measure it over the course of a whole year, taking observations at either side of Earth's orbit around the sun.

It has the ability to measure the minuscule angles associated with great distances.

Using VLBA to target star-forming regions within the galaxy allows us to circumvent that problem. Such regions include areas where molecules of water and methanol act as natural amplifiers of radio signals - masers, the radio-wave equivalent of lasers for light waves. This effect makes the radio signals bright and readily observable with radio telescopes. However, the idea of measuring the distance to star-forming regions like this one could help with the process of mapping. "We're looking all the way through the Milky Way, past its center, way out into the other side", MPIfR's Karl Menten said in the statement. Although we can peer along its edge while embedded in its disk, we cannot see what it looks like face-on.

Bottom line: Astronomers used parallax to obtain a direct measurement past the center of our galaxy, to the Milky Way's far side. This task will require many more observations and much painstaking work, but, the scientists say, the tools for the job now are in hand.

Within the next 10 years, we should have a fairly complete picture.

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