Finding explanation for Milky Way’s warp | Science & Technology

The Milky Way is often depicted as a flat, spinning disk of dust, gas, and stars. But if you could zoom out and take an edge-on photo, it actually has a distinctive warp — as if you tried to twist and bend a vinyl LP.

Though scientists have long known through observational data that the Milky Way is warped and its edges are flared like a skirt, no one could explain why.

Now, Harvard astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard and Smithsonian (CfA) have performed the first calculations that fully explain this phenomenon, with compelling evidence pointing to the Milky Way’s envelopment in an off-kilter halo of dark matter. The work also bolsters current thinking about how the galaxy evolved and may offer clues into some of the mysteries of dark matter.

The new calculations were led by Jiwon Jesse Han, a Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student affiliated with the CfA. Published in Nature Astronomy, the work includes co-authors Charlie Conroy and Lars Hernquist, both faculty members at the CfA and in the Department of Astronomy.

Our galaxy is located inside a diffuse cloud called the stellar halo, which extends much farther out into the universe. In groundbreaking work published last year, the Harvard team deduced that the stellar halo is tilted and elliptical in shape, like a zeppelin or football.

Building on that, the team assumed the same shape for the dark matter halo, the larger entity that encompasses everything in and around the Milky Way. Dark matter makes up 80 percent of the galaxy’s mass but is invisible because it doesn’t interact with light, so the shape of that halo must be inferred. Using models to calculate the orbits of stars within a tilted, oblong dark matter halo, the team found a near-perfect match to existing observations of a warped, flared galaxy.

“A tilted dark halo is actually fairly common in simulations, but no one had explored its effect on the Milky Way,” Conroy said. “It turns out that the tilt is an elegant way…

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