This Is Why It's So Hard To Get An Accurate Map Of The Milky Way

Mapping the outer fringes of our universe is, obviously, a tremendously tricky task. But we should be able to get the parameters of our own galaxy pretty easily, right? Well, maybe not. And there’s a reason why.

NASA released this new version of a Milky Way map with the most updated information about what we know about the shape of the galaxy. It’s got some new information on it — including a whole crop of newly discovered “star nurseries” — but it also has something else: an acknowledgement that, for a lot of the territory out there, we just don’t know that much. Why?


Well, for starters, researchers explain there’s a dust problem. The Milky Way is full of stars, but to get those stars, you also need clouds of dust — and they’re not doing anything to help visibility. But then there’s also a distance problem, not because we’re far away, but because we’re too close. While we may be able to observe other galaxies movements from the outside, the machinations of our own we have to watch from the inside, a task that NASA compares to “trying to create a map of your house while confined to only the living room.” And, if you need yet another clue to understand just how we can still know so little about where we are, consider this other galaxy map.

Every planet in the Milky Way that we’ve discovered from our right down to the smallest exoplanet comes from just the tiniest sliver of the galaxy that we’ve managed to glimpse. We may live in this galaxy, but, as of yet, we just don’t really know it.

Top image: Clouds around the Milky Way; A. Fuji / NASA

Map: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech)


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