The Milky Way is a large barred spiral galaxy comprising an estimated 200 billion stars (some estimates range as high as 400 billion) arrayed in the form of a disk, with a central elliptical bulge (some 12,000 light-years in diameter) of closely packed stars lying in the direction of Sagittarius. It is surrounded by a flat disk marked by six spiral arms that project from a dense, elongated concentration of stars, or bar, that runs through the bulge—four major and two minor—which wind out from the nucleus like a giant pinwheel. Our sun is situated in one of the smaller arms, called the Local or Orion Arm, that connect the more substantial next inner arm and the next outer arm. The sun lies roughly 27,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy, and in the galactic plane. When we look in the plane of the disk we see the combined light of its stars as the Milky Way. The diameter of the disk is c.100,000 light-years; its average thickness is 10,000 light-years, increasing to 30,000 light-years at the nucleus.
Certain features of the region near the sun suggested that our galaxy resembles the Andromeda Galaxy. In 1951 a group led by William Morgan detected evidence of spiral arms in Orion and Perseus. Another bright arm stretches from Sagittarius to Carina in the southern sky. With the development of radio astronomy, scientists have extended a nearly complete map of the spiral structure of the galaxy by tracing regions of hydrogen that dominate the spiral arms. The development of telescopes that could be placed in orbit led by 2005 to confirmation that the Milky Way was a barred spiral galaxy, not a spiral one as had been believed.
Surrounding the galaxy is a large spherical halo of globular star clusters that extends to a diameter of about 130,000 light-years; this is called the stellar halo. The galaxy also has a vast outer spherical region called the corona, or dark halo, which is as much as 600,000 light years in diameter and, in addition to dark matter which accounts for most of the Milky Way's mass, includes some distant globular clusters, the two nearby galaxies called the Magellanic clouds, and four smaller galaxies.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.