Does the Milky Way Move Like a Spinning Top?

The Milky Way above a road heading into the horizon.

Though our naked eyes cannot see energy, it constitutes the essence of the universe and manifests directly in the physical world. (Image: un-perfekt via Pixabay)

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, which means that it is composed, among other components, of a disc of stars, gas, and dust in which the spiral arms are contained. At first, it was thought that the disc was completely flat, but for some decades now it has been known that the outermost part of the disc is distorted into what is called a “warp” — in one direction it is twisted upward, and in the opposite direction downward. The stars, the gas, and the dust are all warped, and so they are not in the same plane as the extended inner part of the disc, and an axis perpendicular to the planes of the warp defines their rotation.

An investigation, carried out by the astrophysicists of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) Žofia Chrobáková, a doctoral student at the IAC and the University of La Laguna (ULL), and Martín López Corredoira, questions one of the most interesting things found out about the dynamics of the Milky Way in recent years: the precession, or the wobble in the axis of rotation of the disc warp, is incorrect. The results have just been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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Milky Way orientation is rotating with time

In 2020, an investigation announced the detection of the precession of the warp of the Milky Way disc, which means that the deformation in this outer region is not static, but that just like a spinning top, the orientation of its axis is itself rotating with time. Furthermore, these researchers found that it was quicker than the theories predicted, that the cycle is every 600-700 million years, some three times the time it takes the Sun to travel once around the center of the Galaxy.

Graphic representation of the precessing warp of the Milky Way disc. (Image: Gabriel Pérez Díaz via SMM (IAC))

Precession is not a phenomenon that occurs only in galaxies, it also happens to our planet. As well as its annual revolution around the Sun, along with its rotation period of 24 hours, the axis of the Earth precesses, which implies that the celestial pole is not always close to the present pole star, but that (as an example) 14,000 years ago, it was close to the star Vega.

Now, a new study by Žofia Chrobáková and Martín López Corredoira has taken into account the variation of the amplitude of the warp with the ages of the stars. The study concludes that using the warp of the old stars whose velocities have been measured, it is possible that the precession can disappear, or at least become slower than what is presently believed. To arrive at this result, the researchers used data from the Gaia mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), analyzing the positions and velocities of hundreds of millions of stars in the outer disc. Žofia Chrobáková, a predoctoral researcher at the IAC and the first author of the article, explained:

“In previous studies it had not been noticed, that the stars which are a few tens of millions of years old, such as the Cepheids, have a much larger warp than that of the stars visible with the Gaia mission, which are thousands of millions of years old.”

Martín López Corredoira, an IAC researcher and co-author of the article, concluded:

“This does not necessarily mean that the warp does not precess at all, it could do so, but much more slowly, and we are probably unable to measure this motion until we obtain better data.”

Provided by: Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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