How the Milky Way Works


How many stars are in the Milky Way?
It's complicated, but you can use Newton's version of Kepler's Third Law to figure out how many stars are in the Milky Way.
It's complicated, but you can use Newton's version of Kepler's Third Law to figure out how many stars are in the Milky Way.
E.L. Wright (UCLA), The COBE Project, DIRBE, NASA

We mentioned earlier that astronomers have estimated the number of stars in the Milky Way from measurements of the galaxy's mass. But how do you measure the mass of a galaxy? You obviously can't put it on a scale. Instead, you use its orbital motion. From Newton's version of Kepler's Third Law of Planetary Motion, the orbital speed of an object in circular orbit, and a little algebra, you can derive an equation to calculate the amount of mass (Mr) that lies within any circular orbit with a radius (r).

  1. Orbital speed of a circular object (v) v=2Πa/p
  2. ­Because it's a circular orbit, a becomes radius (r) and M becomes the mass within that radius (Mr). Mr rv2/G

For the Milky Way, the sun lies at a distance of 2.6 x 1020 meters (28,000 light years) and has an orbital speed of 2.2 x 105 meters/second (220 km/s), we get that 2 x 1049 kg lies within the sun’s orbit. Since the sun’s mass is 2 x 1030, then there must be 1011, or about 100 billion, solar masses (sunlike stars) within its orbit. When we add the portion of the Milky Way that lies outside the sun’s orbit, we get approximately 200 billion stars.

To learn more about the Milky Way, look at the links below.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • A Map of the Milky Way. http://www.atlasoftheuniverse.com/milkyway.html
  • A Teacher's Guide to the Universe. http://www.astro.princeton.edu/~clark/teachersguide.html
  • American Museum of Natural History. "Our Place in Space the Milky Way Galaxy." http://www.amnh.org/ology/astronomy/milkyway/index.htm
  • Arny, T.T. "Explorations an Introduction to Astronomy." Mosby, 1994.
  • Bennett, J. et al. "The Cosmic Perspective (third edition)." Pearson, 2004.
  • Chaisson, E., McMillan, S. "Astronomy Today." Prentice Hall, 2002.
  • Discovery Education. Understanding the Universe: Galaxy Tour. http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schooladventures/universe/galaxytour/index.html
  • Henry, J. Patrick et al. "The Evolution of Galaxy Clusters." Scientific American, December 1998. http://atropos.as.arizona.edu/aiz/teaching/a204/darkmat/SciAm98b.pdf
  • Kaufmann, W.J. "Universe (fourth edition)." WH Freeman & Co., 1994.
  • Multiwavelength Milky Way. http://mwmw.gsfc.nasa.gov/
  • NASA Imagine the Universe. "The Hidden Lives of Galaxies" book. http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/teachers/galaxies/imagine/titlepage.html
  • NASA Imagine the Universe. "The Hidden Lives of Galaxies" poster. http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/teachers/galaxies/imagine/poster.jpg
  • NASA Imagine the Universe. "The Milky Way Galaxy." http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/features/objects/milkyway1.html
  • NASA/JPL GALEX. http://www.galex.caltech.edu
  • Seeds, M.A. "Stars & Galaxies (second edition)." Brooks/Cole, 2001.
  • Windows to the Universe. "The Milky Way Galaxy - Our Home." http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/the_universe/Milkyway.html
  • WMAP Cosmology 101: The Milky Way Galaxy. http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/m_uni/uni_101mw.html

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