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Far-out Facts

About the

Milky Way

Galaxy

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When we think of where we are in the entire universe, our planet is just one a small speck. Even our solar system is one of many in the Milky Way Galaxy, and our own galaxy is one of billions in the universe. It’s hard to image how big The Great Expanse actually is. But with advanced technology, we have a better understanding of what lies in the deepest parts of space. Just in our own Milky Way Galaxy, we have numerous suns, planets, solar systems, comets, black holes, and so much more. Here are 10 interesting facts about our Milky Way Galaxy…

10. Structure And Size Of The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy with a center bulge that is surrounded by four arms that are wrapped around it. Around two-thirds of all the galaxies in The Great Expanse are shaped in a spiral. Our galaxy, as well as our solar system, is always rotating. While our solar system travels around 515,000 miles-per-hour on average, it would still take approximately 230 million years to travel around the Milky Way.

Our galaxy is around 100,000 light-years across and has a mass of between 400 and 780 billion times the mass of our own sun. 90% of its mass is believed to be dark matter.

There is a huge halo of hot gas surrounding our galaxy that stretches for hundreds of thousands of light-years. While it is believed to be as huge as all of the stars put together in the Milky Way, the halo itself only has around 2% of the amount of stars that are found inside of the disk.

And at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy is the galactic bulge which contains gas, stars, and dust that’s so thick you can’t even see into it, let alone to the other side.

9. The Andromeda Galaxy Will Eventually Collide With The Milky Way

The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will eventually collide into each other, but it won’t happen for a very long time. While it was previously thought that it would happen 3.75 billion years from now, newly conducted research from the ESA’s Gaia mission estimates the collision will take place in 4.5 billion years.

And we may not get hit as hard as previously thought. The new research also suggests that it won’t be a full force collision and rather a “tidal interaction,” which means that no planets or stars will collide with each other.

There is a group of more than 54 galaxies that are named the Local Group, of which Andromeda and the Milky Way are a part. These two galaxies, as well as the Triangulum Galaxy, are the three largest in the group. Andromeda is the most massive galaxy, while the Milky Way ranks second, and the Triangulum is third. Andromeda and Triangulum are both spiral galaxies and are situated between 2.5 and 3 million light years away from the Milky Way.

8. Our Galaxy Is Warped And Twisted Instead Of Being Flat

It’s always been said that our galaxy is flat as a pancake, but a recent study revealed that the Milky Way is in fact warped and twisted. The farther away the stars are from the center of the galaxy, the more they become warped and twisted in an S-like appearance.

Over 1,000 Cepheid variable stars (1,339 to be exact) were used in a study conducted by astronomers from Macquarie University as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences. These stars became bright and dim in a manner that changed according to their luminosity. The data collected from these stars by using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (or WISE) let astronomers create a 3D map of the true shape of our galaxy.

While the Milky Way is now confirmed to be warped and twisted, it’s not the only one out there that’s like that. While it’s not overly common, astronomers have confirmed that a dozen other galaxies in The Great Expanse have twisted spiral patterns in their outer-most areas.

7. There Are Hundreds Of Billions Of Stars In Our Galaxy

It’s tough to know exactly how many stars there are in our galaxy since the halo around the Milky Way also contains many stars. In addition, the center of our galaxy has a galactic bulge that’s filled with dust, stars, and gas, as well as a super-massive black hole which makes that area extremely thick with materials that telescopes are unable to see through it.

While around 90% of our galaxy’s mass is made up of dark matter, the majority of the remaining 10% is dust and gas, it is believe that only about 3% of the Milky Way’s mass is made up of stars. Some researchers believe that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy, while others say that there are much more – between 400 and 700 billion.

The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission is mapping out the locations of around 1 billion stars in the Milky Way, so that’s a good start.

6. There’s A Super-massive Black Hole At The Heart Of Our Galaxy

It is believed that most, if not all, galaxies have a super-massive black hole at their center and the Milky Way has one that weighs as much as 4 million suns. Sagittarius A*, which is the massive object located at the center of our galaxy, has been observed for the past several years. Although black holes can’t actually be seen, scientists study them by observing the materials that are orbiting around them.

Scientists wanted to measure the effects of gravity near the black hole so they decided to observe a small star called S2 that orbits deep within Sagittarius A*’s gravity well every 16 years. They noticed three bright flares that traveled around the black hole’s event horizon at approximately 216 million miles per hour (or 30% of the speed of light).

Scientists previously believed that there were only small and super-massive black holes, but there are in fact medium-sized (or intermediate) black holes that are rare but they do exist, and we’ll talk about that in the next entry…

5. There’s Also A Jupiter-Sized Black Hole Wandering Around Our Galaxy

New research indicates that a rare Jupiter-sized black hole is wandering around our galaxy. The data came from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (or ALMA) which includes 66 telescopes that are placed across the Atacama Desert located in the northern part of Chile.

The data consisted of the scientists observing two gas clouds, called Balloon and Stream in reference to their shapes, and what they witnessed during their two-day observation period in May 2018 was that the gas clouds were moving in an odd pattern, like they were spinning around an invisible center in a location where no light was coming from.

The team determined that the object was an uncommon medium-sized black hole that has around 30,000 times the mass of our sun and is approximately the size of Jupiter.

4. Earth Is At The Center Of The Habitable Zone In Our Galaxy

For the last two decades, astronomers have modeled the evolution of our galaxy in order to figure out the four essentials needed for complex life – the existence of a host star; a sufficient amount of heavy elements to create terrestrial planets (like Earth); enough time for biological evolution; and an environment without gamma ray bursts or life-threatening supernovae.

Almost 4,000 exoplanets and nearly 3,000 planetary systems have been confirmed to exist in our galaxy. Hundreds of those star systems have more than one planet that is within the Galactic Habitable Zone (or GHZ) and there is no doubt that many more are out there just waiting to be discovered.

And of course Earth is located at a perfect spot near the center of our galaxy’s GHZ. What’s even more interesting is that according to astrophysicists at the Australian National University, the GHZ only has about 10% of all the stars in the Milky Way.

3. There Are Almost 4,000 Exoplanets In Our Galaxy

Planets that are beyond our solar system are called exoplanets and thousands have been discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope over the past several years. These exoplanets can be any size, with some being rocky and others having icy surfaces.

The Kepler Space Telescope worked to find these planets from 2009 until 2018. During that time, it discovered 2,682 exoplanets with over 2,900 possible candidates that are still waiting to be confirmed. And according to information found on NASA’s website, a total of 3,916 exoplanets (including the ones found by Kepler) have been confirmed.

Kepler ran out of gas and was officially decommissioned in November 2018. However, a new spacecraft, called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS) has taken its place to find new planets. It was launched in April of 2018 and is planning to scan around 85% of the sky in its two-year mission.

2. So Far, Almost 3,000 Planetary Systems Have Been Discovered In Our Galaxy

Another important piece of information presented on NASA’s website is that 2,917 planetary systems have already been discovered. One of those planetary systems which is very similar is our own solar system is called Kepler-90 which is located approximately 2,500 light years away from us towards the Draco Constellation.

Kepler-90 has eight planets which is the same number of planets located in our solar system. Other similarities between the two solar systems are that Kepler-90 has a G-type star which is comparable to our own sun; it has rocky planets like ours; and it has other large planets that are similar in size to Saturn and Jupiter.

One major difference between the two solar systems is that Kepler-90’s planets all orbit very close to their sun which would indicate that they may be too hot to sustain any type of life. But with further research, more planets could potentially be discovered that orbit at a further distance.

1A. Milky Way Is Only One Of Hundreds Of Billions Of Galaxies In The Universe

According to data collected from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, it was previously thought that there were around 200 billion galaxies in the universe. However, it is now believed that there are at least ten times more galaxies out there in space.

Some experts believe that around 90% of the galaxies in the observable universe are too far away and even too faint to see with our telescopes. Thankfully, the James Webb Space Telescope (or JWST) is scheduled to be launched in early 2021 which will help to see these faint galaxies and perhaps uncover even more.

Some of the tasks the JWST will conduct will be to find out what happened after the first stars were formed following the Big Bang; finding out how galaxies were formed and assembled; the birth of stars and proto-planetary systems; and understanding the atmospheres on distant planets to find out if they are habitable and can sustain life.

1B. What WIF Calls the Universe

What most folks refer to as the “Universe”, the rest of the fictional civilizations out there call it “The Great Expanse”, at least that is how  “I-Gwen” describes that wondrous-wide Creation that God set in motion. If giving God credit offends your sensibility, the “Big Bang” happened.

Whatever it is called or whoever gets the credit, it certainly boggles our little minds and this author is eternally fascinated.


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10 Reasons We Should Leave Earth

and Explore the Space

There’s nowhere to run. Not with today’s technology. There’s no emergency plan to get us off this planet and preserve our legacy in case of apocalypse. For this reason alone we should think about finding ways to spread our wings and leave home. And if we do we’ll find other benefits, like…

10. Become Explorers Again

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From as far back as we can trace our history, man has been on the move. Part ofhumanity left Africa in search of greener pastures roughly 60,000 years ago, and from there we settled the entire world, overcoming one obstacle after another and adapting to new climates and environments. Today we’re left with little to investigate, with the exception of space.

This is a mission of incredible uncertainty and risk, with many unknown factors and incredible costs. Take care that you don’t fool yourself into thinking that private corporations can accomplish this on their own! Governments must go in first and take the risk, and only then will the private sector follow. This is how it’s always been done, from Columbus, Marco Polo and Magellan to Apollo and Soyuz. They were all funded by states with grand goals in mind, not individuals or private enterprises.

9. He3 and the Moon

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Humanity invented the airplane and flew men to the Moon in less than 70 years, but after the Soviets decided to not pursue the space race further we lost the incentive to go back to the Moon. But there’s no better or more necessary time than the present to go back. In all the lunar soil samples brought back from the Moon, scientists have discovered large amounts of helium-3 (He3). This compound is a key ingredient for nuclear fusion, capable of providing the world with enough energy to last centuries. He3 is found on Earth in only very small quantities that lack a practical use. The Sun produces large quantities, but because of the Earth’s magnetic field He3 never reaches our planet’s surface. But the Moon is full of the stuff too, and presents far fewer obstacles. And unlike traditional nuclear reactors the theoretical He3 reactor will be more efficient, while the problem of nuclear waste will become practically nonexistent.

8. Space Tourism

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This is something some of us can theoretically be part of. We already have the possibility of seeing the Earth from really high up, but the price for doing so is beyond most of our means. The Russians will be very happy to take you on a flight, but you’ll have to leave behind somewhere between 30 to 35 million dollars.

As for the rest of us who don’t have that kind of money, there are a couple of alternatives that we can consider. Currently there are about half a dozen companies working towards bringing us into space. Virgin Galactic is developing a spaceship capable of taking six people into outer orbit for a couple of minutes, although at $200,000 that’s hardly a casual weekend getaway either. XCOR Aerospace, on the other hand, offers the intimacy of your trip being just you and the pilot for half the cost. Some want to take it a step further, like Robert Bigelow. This American hotel chain owner dreams of building inflatable living quarters in space for tourists and astronauts alike.

7. Colonize Mars

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When it comes to colonizing Mars, we have to think of its future colonists like the pioneers of the Old West. Once they leave, there’s no coming back — but the chance to go to another planet and call it home is, for some, more than a bargain.

Plans and projects are already unfolding. Mars One hopes to send unmanned missions in 2018, with humans arriving in 2024. It will take the astronauts seven months to get there, and once they arrive it’s not going to be about exploring, but surviving. They’ll get no assistance from anyone, not in terms of supplies like food, water, oxygen or basic aid from Earth. Nor in terms of a breathable atmosphere or temperatures above -70C from Mars itself. They’ll have to make due with only what they brought, along with their own ingenuity and willpower.

Living in space could be called claustrophobic at best, and they’ll lose touch with nature and all the stress fighting relief it provides. That’s why these first colonistswill bring plants with them. They’d provide the settlement with food and oxygen, and also a reminder of home. There’s even talk of terraforming Mars, but that’s a goal for a distant future generation.

6. And Venus

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The idea of colonizing Venus is probably far from your mind, considering it’s a fiery inferno of molten rock with oceans of liquid methane and sulfuric acid rain pushed down by an atmospheric pressure greater than a kilometer of water. Not quite the paradise we were hoping for, and by no means a good place to set up shop.

However, its atmosphere is quite different. 50 kilometers above the surface, conditions are somewhat similar to those here on Earth. Unlike the Moon or Mars, the Venusian atmosphere can shield us from most of the Sun’s UV rays and the pressure is similar to home. Besides Earth, Venus’ atmosphere is themost favorable place for human life in the entire Solar System.

While the surface of Venus reaches temperatures of over 450 C (842 F), the high atmosphere is just above 0 degrees (32 F), while the pressure inside is similar to outside conditions. This has led scientists to believe that a future floating city doesn’t need a heavily reinforced outer shell, just enough to withstand sulfuric acid droplets. Breathable air inside the colony will serve a double purpose of both keeping settlers alive and maintaining the ship at the right altitude.Resources needed to sustain the base and its people can be found all over, either in the air or on the ground. Manned missions to the surface are next to impossible because of the hellish conditions, but mining for resources can be done remotely.

5. The Asteroid Belt

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Next on the list of potential colonies is the asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter. The size of these asteroids varies from small dust particles to bodies 940 km (530 miles) across, and the amount of resources found on them is staggering. There’s over a billion times the quantity of platinum, iron, gold, silver and other metals than there can be extracted here on Earth, not to mention all the water we’ll ever need. Mining these asteroids should and almost certainty will be left in the hands of robots, both to cut down on the already significant investment in resources mining will require, and to limit the danger.

4. Exoplanets

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We know surprisingly little about our own galaxy. For example, we don’t know its shape — because we’re part of it, our view is similar to that of a rat in a maze. We lack the big picture, and so scientists debate whether the Milky Way has two or four arms swirling around its core. Our perspective of galaxies is based on others that we can see, like the Andromeda Galaxy, which at 2.3 million light years away is the closest to our own.

We do, however, know that our Solar System is situated somewhere between the galaxy’s middle and its edge. It’s a good distance away from the core where huge amounts of deadly radiation is being produced, and not far enough into the outskirts where no heavy elements like carbon, calcium and iron can be created. These heavy elements are formed in the bellies of stars, and when these stars die they produce all the elements in and around us. Our Sun is a second or third generation star, meaning that other stars before it called this region of space their home at some point. The edges of the galaxy have fewer stars and thus fewer heavy elements, leading to fewer planets.

Habitable planets follow the same principle. They have to be at the correct distance from their star in order for their temperature to be just right, a region called The Goldilocks Zone. Scientists have discovered around 2000 other planets in our galactic “neighborhood.” We can determine their size, distance from their star and what they’re made of based on the gravitational effect they have on their parent star and the intensity of that star’s light when the planet travels in front of it. Some of these planets are quite close to us, relatively speaking. The nearest exoplanet in the Goldilocks Zone is just 13 light years away, while the next one is 20.2 light years. We can’t reach these planets, but in time and with the help of better technology future generations may get there.

3. Keeping Us Alive

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We live in a globalized society. People can come and go as they please, and can reach the other side of the world in less than a day. Borders are beginning to melt away like in the case of the European Union, and entire families can go and live in totally different places from where they were born. While this is by and large a good thing, one concern is that this is leading to a loss of cultural identity. Some people worry that no traditions will be left intact, and nations will forget what it truly means to be American or Russian, Catholic or Hindu.

Another concern is a global plague. Back in the Middle Ages Europe was decimated by the Black Death that arrived on boats from China. Over one third of Europe’s population was wiped out. The same thing happened in the Americas with the arrival of the Europeans, who brought diseases that killed over 90% of the indigenous population. These unfortunate events happened in somewhat isolated circumstances, but in a world where everyone is connected a virus could have dire consequences for the whole of humanity. Our vastly improved medical technology makes this unlikely, but the risk is there.

Leaving Earth and starting colonies on faraway worlds makes both these problems go away. This doesn’t mean that a deadly disease will never wreak havoc or that humans will never blend into some sort of unity of cultures, but by spreading into the galaxy we can assure diversity in both our traditions and our health.

2. Finding E.T.

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The question of whether we’re alone has been boggling man’s mind since as long as our minds could be boggled. There’s no definite answer, but as Arthur C. Clarke said, “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has been keeping an ear on outer space for decades now, listening for potential transmissions coming from our possible neighbors. Little besides static has ever come out of deep space so far, with the exception of the WOW! Signal. Back in 1977, a 72 second transmission was received from near a star in the Sagittarius constellation, 120 light years away from Earth. Further attempts to locate the signal were in vain, leading to much controversy about its origins.

We’re probably looking at things the wrong way. When it comes to alien life, we really have to think outside the box. We could be surrounded on all sides by signs from distant worlds and we would have no idea, because we don’t know what other intelligent life considers communication to be. Recent discoveries have shown that information, be it in English, Chinese, French or Ancient Sumerian, has a distinct pattern. Some words are more frequent than others, and when someone is talking or writing these words, when graphed based on the frequency of their appearance, form a straight 45 degree angle. The same template even emerges with dolphins. If alien information exists in outer space, it will most certainly follow the same rules. We only need to know what to look for.

1. Finding A.I.

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Chances are that by the time we find extraterrestrial life we’ll have created intelligent life of our own right here on Earth. Artificial intelligence (A.I.) can take over many of our current day jobs. We’re already seeing hints of this, as scientists have been developing vehicles that can drive themselves. Hundreds of such cars have been tested on our roads for years, and the technology is getting better and better. These automated vehicles don’t need to be perfect; they only need to be better than us. They don’t get sleepy, they don’t text while driving and they don’t get distracted. Insurance companies might call them their perfect drivers.

Once this technology becomes mainstream, chances are that many of us will lose our jobs. Millions of people worldwide are employed in transportation, a job that will most certainly be automated in the future. The same principle applies to airline pilots, not to mention military drones currently used around the globe.

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