Our Milky Way Galaxy and its companions

Other languages: Dutch [NL]    |    Romanian [RO]

Our Milky Way Galaxy and its companions

On this page, some pictures and background info on our Milky Way galaxy and its companions. This information is nowhere near complete, was collected from various sources on the internet (e.g. the picture-of-the-day archive and the Anglo-Australian Observatory) and is provided ``as is''. Note that most pictures are copyrighted.

A fisheye view of the Southern Sky


Credit and Copyright: G. Garradd

From horizon to horizon, the night sky above Loomberah, New South Wales, Australia was photographed by astronomer Gordon Garradd on March 22, 1996. Garradd used a home made all-sky camera with a fish-eye lens, resulting in a circular 200 degree field of view. This gorgeous sky view is dominated by the luminous band of the Milky Way cut by dramatic, dark interstellar dust clouds. Along with the bright stars of our Galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud is visible at the upper right (about 1 o'clock) and the long, lovely, bluish tail of comet Hyakutake can be seen toward the bottom of the image, near the bright star Arcturus. Bright city lights from nearby Tamworth glow along the Northwestern horizon.

The Milky Way Galaxy - A spiral galaxy, type SBbc, centered in Sagittarius

Milky Way Center

Credit: W. Keel (U. Alabama in Tuscaloosa), Cerro Tololo, Chile

The sky toward the center of our Galaxy is filled with a wide variety of celestial wonders. Most are visible with only binoculars. Constellations of nearby stars include Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Scutum, and Ophiuchus. This regions contains many nebulae, open clusters and globular clusters. It also contains Baade's Window.

The Milky Way is the galaxy which homes our Solar System together with at least 200 billion other stars and their planets, and thousands of clusters and nebulae including at least almost all objects of Messier's catalog which are not galaxies on their own (the only possible exception may be M54 which may belong to SagDEG, a small galaxy which is currently in a close encounter with the Milky Way, and thus our closest known intergalactic neighbor). All the objects in the Milky Way Galaxy orbit their common center of mass, called the Galactic Center (see below).

As a galaxy, the Milky Way is actually a giant, as its mass is probably between 750 billion and one trillion solar masses, and its diameter is about 100,000 light years. Radio astronomial investigations of the distribution of hydrogene clouds have revealed that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy of Hubble type Sb or Sc. Recent evidence, particularly from the DIRBE instrument aboard COBE, convincingly shows our galaxy to be a barred (SB) rather than a regular spiral (S).


Credit: COBE/DIRBE - NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

As we are situated within the outer regions of this galaxy, only about 20 light years above the equatorial symmetry plane but about 28,000 light years from the Galactic Center, the Milky Way shows up as luminous band spanning all around the sky along this symmetry plane, which is also called the "Galactic Equator". Its center lies in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, but very close to the border of both neighbor constellations Scorpius and Ophiuchus. The distance of 28,000 light years has recently been confirmed by the data of ESA's astrometric satellite Hipparcos.

Milky Way pictures are wide-field exposures. Besides being attractive and often colorful, they are often suited to view the Milky Way objects (including nebulae and star clusters) in their celestial surroundings of field stars.

Below we give some data for the Galactic Center:

   Right ascension	 17 : 45.6 (h:m)
   Declination		-28 : 56   (d:m)
   Distance			28 (kly)
The Galactic North Pole is at:
   Right ascension	 12 : 51.4 (h:m)
   Declination		+27 : 07   (d:m)
Our Sun, together with the whole Solar System, is orbiting the Galactic Center at the distance given, on a nearly circular orbit. We are moving at about 250 km/sec, and need about 220 million years to complete one orbit (so the Solar System has orbited the Galactic Center about 20 to 21 times since its formation about 4.6 billion years ago).

Considering the sense of rotation, the Galaxy, at the Sun's position, is rotating toward the direction of Right Ascension 21:12.0, Declination +48:19. This shows that it rotates "backward" in the Galactic coordinate system, i.e. the Galactic North Pole is actually a physical South Pole with respect to galactic rotation.

The coordinate data given here were extracted from the online coordinate calculator at Nasa's Extragalactical Database (NED).

The Lund Observatory map of our Milky Way Galaxy


Credit: Knut Lundmark, Copyright: Lund Observatory

7,000 Stars And The Milky Way

This panorama view of the sky is really a drawing. It was made in the 1940s under the supervision of astronomer Knut Lundmark at the Lund Observatory in Sweden. To create the picture, draftsmen used a mathematical distortion to map the entire sky onto an oval shaped image with the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy along the center and the north galactic pole at the top. 7,000 individual stars are shown as white dots, size indicating brightness. The "Milky Way" clouds, actually the combined light of dim, unresolved stars in the densely populated galactic plane, are accurately painted on, interrupted by dramatic dark dust lanes. The overall effect is photographic in quality and represents the visible sky. Can you identify any familiar landmarks or constellations? For starters, Orion is at the right edge of the picture, just below the galactic plane and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are visible as fuzzy patches in the lower right quadrant.

Compare this drawing with:

A photographic mosaic of the Milky Way


Milky Way photomosaic, contributed to the Usenet group alt.binaries.pictures.astro by Lloyd Johnson

A Magellanic Mural


Credit: W. Keel (U. Alabama in Tuscaloosa), Cerro Tololo, Chile

Two galaxies stand out to casual observers in Earth's Southern Hemisphere: the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). These irregular galaxies are two of the closest galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy. Recent observations of the LMC (on the left) have determined that it is on a nearly circular orbit around our Galaxy, and have even helped in the determination of the composition of dark matter in our Galaxy. The above photograph spans 40 degrees. Visible on the lower left of the LMC is the Tarantula Nebula (in red). In the foreground to the right of the SMC is globular cluster 47 Tucanae, appearing here as a bright point of light.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

Malin_LMC.jpg Malin_SMC.jpg

Credit & Copyright: D. Malin (AAO), AATB, ROE, UKS Telescope

Almost unknown to casual observers in the northern hemisphere, the southern sky contains two diffuse wonders known as the Magellanic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are small irregular galaxies orbiting our own larger Milky Way spiral galaxy. The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), pictured here, is about 250,000 light years away and contains a preponderance of young, hot, blue stars indicating it has undergone a recent period of star formation. There is evidence that the SMC is not gravitationally bound to the LMC.

AAO image reference UKS 14.
(c) Anglo-Australian Observatory/Royal Observatory, Edinburgh Photograph from UK Schmidt plates by David Malin, text ) David Malin.
The image in this page was obtained by David Malin with the Anglo-Australian Telescope. This image is copyrighted and may be used for private purpose only. For any other kind of use, including internet mirroring and storing on CD-ROM, please contact Coral Cooksley of the Anglo Australian Observatory.

The Large Magellanic Cloud, LMC

Irregular Galaxy LMC, the Large Magellanic Cloud in Dorado

   Right Ascension	  5 : 23.6 (h:m)
   Declination		-69 : 45   (d:m)
   Distance		 179.0     (kly)
   Visual Brightness	 0.1       (mag)
   Apparent Dimension	 650x550   (arcmin)
The Large Magellanic Cloud, together with its apparent neighbor and relative, the Small Magellanic Cloud, are conspicuous objects in the southern hemisphere, looking like separated pieces of the Milky Way for the naked eye. They were certainly known since the earliest times by the ancient southerners, but these people produced little documents which are still preserved. So it was Magellan and his discovery expedition who brought them to our knowledge in 1519.

Both Magellanic Clouds are irregular dwarf galaxies orbiting our Milky Way galaxy, and thus are members of our Local Group of galaxies. The Large Magellanic Cloud, at its distance of 179,000 light years, was longly considered the nearest external galaxy, until in 1994, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy was discovered at only about 80,000 light years. (Our current distance value takes into account the corrected Cepheid distance scale based on the Hipparcos satellite data published in early 1997.)

LMC is less than one tenth as massive as the Milky Way; even so it contains the equivalent of over ten billion solar masses of material in the form of stars, gas and dust. The nearness of the LMC ensures that it is well resolved into stars in quite a modest telescope, and deep photographs reveal it to be a highly complex system with large numbers of clusters, nebulae and dust clouds scattered apparently at random across the face of the galaxy. Although a small irregular galaxy, the LMC is full of interesting objects including diffuse nebulae (especially the Tarantula Nebula, NGC 2070 / 30 Doradus -- the bright red patch at the eastern end of the galaxy --, a giant H II region), globular and open clusters, planetary nebulae, and more.

Malin_LMC_SN1987A.jpg SN1987A_Challis.jpg

Left: Credit: D. Malin (AAO). LMC showing Supernova SN1987A in its full splendor, and the same patch of sky prior to the explosion. Right: Credit: P. Challis (CfA)/ HST. Ten years after the SN explosion the expanding ejecta eerilly glow in the dark. The two outer rings consist of gas ejected by strong winds from the stellar surface in an earlier stage, before it exploded.

On February 24, 1987, supernova 1987A occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which was the nearest observed supernova since Keplers, which occured before the invention of the telescope. Supernova 1987A, peculiar and of type II, was one of the most interesting objects for the astrophysicists in the 1980s (some even say of this century).

The Small Magellanic Cloud, SMC

Irregular Galaxy SMC, the Small Magellanic Cloud (NGC 292) in Tucana

   Right Ascension            0 : 52.7 (h:m)
   Declination               72 : 50   (deg:m)
   Distance                    210.0   (kly)
   Visual Brightness             2.3   (mag)
   Apparent Dimension      280 x 160   (arc min)
Like its larger apparent neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Small Magellanic Cloud was certainly known to the ancient southerners, but became known to us only when Magellan went on his journey around the world, in 1519. The main body of the Small Magellanic Cloud has been assigned NGC 292 in Dreyer's catalog, which is now sometimes used for this galaxy. In addition, many clusters and nebulae which are members of this galaxy have been given their own NGC numbers.

This galaxy looks like a peace of the Milky Way for the naked eye. It orbits our Milky Way galaxy at about 210,000 light years distance, which makes it the third-nearest external galaxy known (after the LMC and the 1994 discovered Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy). Our current distance value takes into account the corrected Cepheid distance scale based on the Hipparcos satellite data published in early 1997.

The SMC is of irregular type. It may be a distorted barred disk, deformed by the tidal gravitational forces of Milky Way and LMC, but this is not sure. It contains several nebulae and star clusters which can be seen in photographs and through telescopes.

It was the Small Magellanic Cloud where Miss Henrietta Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity relation of Cepheid variables, which is since then the most reliable method available for determining large cosmic distances.

Newly discovered neighbours, hidden behind the Milky Way

Hidden Neighbours DwingelooI AntliaDEG
Saggitarius DEG CepheusI

(Dwingeloo I, Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical, Antlia Dwarf Spheroidal, Argo Dwarf Irregular, Cepheus I, Pegasus Dwarf Elliptical)

Recently a couple of companion galaxies have been discovered that had been hiding behind the dust and gas clouds of the Milky Way disk. Dwingeloo I and its companion Dwingeloo II were discovered in 1994 when astronomers pointed the Dwingeloo 25m radio telescope at the Milky Way. They are located behind the Milky Way at a distance of about 5 times further away than the Andromeda Galaxy, M31.

Also in 1994, a group of english astronomers discovered a galaxy that was located close to, but not entirely extinguished by, the interstellar matter in the Milky Way disk. That galaxy, the Saggitarius Dwarf Elliptical, turns out to be the closest companion of our Milky Way at a distance of only 24 kilo-parsec, about half the distance to the LMC.

This dwarf galaxy remained undiscovered -- despite its enormous extent on the sky of 5 x 10 degrees -- because it can only be detected as a slight enhancement of the density of stars on the sky; the actual surface brightness of this galaxy is very low.
In its orbit around the Milky Way, it has probably reached its closest distance to the Milky Way center right about now, and there is strong evidence of graviational interaction: our Milky Way is slowly ripping apart this poor dwarf and it may not survive for many more orbits.

In 1997 the same group of astronomers discovered a similar dwarf galaxy in the constellation of Antlia. It is comparable to the 9 similar companions of the Milky Way, but is interesting in that it is neither orbiting our Milky Way nor the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, but instead moves about freely in the Local Group of galaxies. The Antlia Dwarf contains only about a million stars and appears a rather large globular cluster.

A second discovery was announced during the same press conference of a dwarf irregular galaxy in the constellation Argo. This Argo Dwarf, however, contains both a young and an old stellar population, and it is now known to contain quite a lot of neutral hydrogen gas as well. It was concluded therefore, that this galaxy must be more distant, at the edge or just beyond, of the Local Group. It is an example of a Low Surface Brightness (LSB) galaxy.

Still newer is the discovery of a big, but faint, galaxy named Cepheus I. It is located outside our Local Group at a distance of 6 Mega-parsec, or 9 times the distance to M31. It was discovered with the Radiotelescope at Dwingeloo. Despite its large mass in neutral hydrogen, it emits surprisingly little light. That is why, originally, it was thought to be much closer to our Milky Way.


Credit: E. Grebel (U. Washington), P. Guhathakurta (UCO/Lick)

The newest addition to our local family of galaxies is the Pegasus Dwarf Spheroidal. It is a small, newly recognized member of the Local Group of Galaxies. Likely a satellite companion of the Local Group's dominant player, the large spiral Andromeda (M31), the Pegasus dwarf galaxy is almost hidden in the glare of relatively bright foreground stars in our own Milkyway. Still, this dramatic Keck telescope 3-color image reveals Peg dSph as a clump of fainter, bluer stars 2,000 or so light-years across. Excitement over discoveries of Peg dSph and other nearby dwarf galaxies reflects the fact that little galaxies may loom large in the process of galaxy evolution. They are thought to be the building blocks from which larger galaxies are constructed.

The Local Group of galaxies

Local Group Schematic M31

Credit and copyright of this M31 image: Jason Ware, jware@galaxyphoto.com (see also his website at http://www.galaxyphoto.com/)

The Milky Way Galaxy belongs to the Local Group, a smaller group of 3 large and over 30 small galaxies, and is the second largest (after the Andromeda Galaxy M31 (above)) but perhaps the most massive member of this group. M31, at about 2.9 million light years, is the nearest large galaxy, but a number of faint galaxies are much closer: Many of the dwarf Local Group members are satellites or companions of the Milky Way. The closest of all is above-mentioned SagDEG at about 80,000 light years from us and some 50,000 light years from the Galactic Center, followed by the more conspicuous Large and Small Magellanic Cloud at 179,000 and 210,000 light years, respectively.

Name                   Coordinates   Type   D(kpc)   Mv  Vo(km/s)
M31         NGC 224  00 40.0  +40 59  Sb     725   -21.1  -299
Galaxy               17 42.4  -28 55  Sbc          -20.6
M33         NGC 598  01 31.1  +30 24  Sc     795   -18.9  -180
LMC                  05 24.0  -69 48  Irr    49    -18.1   270
IC 10                00 17.7  +59 01  Irr    820   -17.6  -343
NGC 6822    DDO 209  19 42.1  -14 56  Irr    540   -16.4   -49
M32         NGC 221  00 40.0  +40 36  E2     725   -16.4  -190
NGC 205              00 37.6  +41 25  E5     725   -16.3  -239
SMC                  00 51.0  -73 06  Irr    58    -16.2   163
NGC 3109    DDO 236  10 00.8  -25 55  Irr    1260  -15.8   403   
NGC 185              00 36.2  +48 04  E3     620   -15.3  -208
IC 1613     DDO 8    01 02.2  +01 51  Irr    765   -14.9  -236
NGC 147     DDO 3    00 30.5  +48 14  E4     589   -14.8  -157
Sextans A   DDO 75   10 08.6  -04 28  Irr    1450  -14.4   325
Sextans B   DDO 70   09 57.4  +05 34  Irr    1300  -14.3   301
WLM         DDO 221  23 59.4  -15 45  Irr    940   -14.0  -116
Sagittarius          18 51.9  -30 30  dE7    24    -14.0   140
Fornax               02 37.8  -34 44  dE3    131   -13.0    53
Pegasus     DDO 216  23 26.1  +14 28  Irr    759   -12.7  -181
Leo I       DDO 74   10 05.8  +12 33  dE3    270   -12.0   285
Leo A       DDO 69   09 56.5  +30 59  Irr    692   -11.7   +26   
And II               01 13.5  +33 09  dE3    587   -11.7
And I                00 43.0  +37 44  dE0    790   -11.7
SagDIG               19 27.9  -17 47  Irr    1150  -11.0   -79
Antlia               10 01.8  -27 05  dE3    1150  -10.7   361
Sculptor             00 57.6  -33 58  dE     78    -10.7   107
And III              00 32.6  +36 12  dE6    790   -10.2
Leo II      DDO 93   11 10.8  +22 26  dE0    230   -10.2    76
Sextans              10 10.6  -01 24  dE4    90    -10.0   224
Phoenix              01 49.0  -44 42  Irr    390    -9.9    56
LGS 3                01 01.2  +21 37  Irr/dE 760    -9.7  -277
Tucana               22 38.5  -64 41  dE5    900    -9.6
Carina               06 40.4  -50 55  dE4    87     -9.2   223
Ursa Minor  DDO 199  15 08.2  +67 23  dE5    69     -8.9  -250
Draco       DDO 228  17 19.2  +57 58  dE3    76     -8.6  -289
More M31 companions recently announced:
And V              01074+4721
And VI   Peg  Dw   23492+2419
And VII  Cass Dw   23241+5025
Probable additional Local Group members:
IC 5152              21 59.6  -51 32  Irr    1600:        +121
UKS 2323-326         23 23.8  -32 40  Irr    1300:         +62
Aquarius             20 44.2  -13 01  Irr    900:         -131
Nearby Galaxies just outside ? Local Group:
EGB0427+63  UGC-A92  04 27.4  +63 30  Irr    2000:        -105
Cam A                04 31.5  +71 25  Irr    2000:
GR 8        DDO 155  12 56.2  +14 29  Irr    2200  -12.5  +216
Argo                 07 04.5  -58 27  Irr    3500:         554

NB. does not include Sculptor Group direction objects

Back to R.A. Jansen's homepage

Go to the top of this page.