The Milky Way, our home galaxy, is now better understood thanks to Twitter and researchers at the University of Toronto and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

A study that was just published in the July issue of the Astronomical Journal describes the discovery that was just made using data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

According to a NASA release, the WISE mission took infrared surveys of the entire sky in 2010. Scanning light in the infrared spectrum allows scientists and researchers to view the structure of galaxies without the obstruction of interstellar dust, which blocks light in the visible spectrum.

The Twitter – Milky Way link

Dustin Lang is an astronomer at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute. He took the WISE data and created a map of galaxies beyond the Milky Way and made it available through his website.

He took to Twitter to spread the word, and it caught the attention of other astronomers online, in particular, Melissa Ness, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

What she saw was a bulge, similar in shape to a football, that appears within the otherwise flat disk of the Milky Way.

According to, computer models had previously suggested the presence of an X-shaped structure inside the Milky Way, but it remained a somewhat controversial theory until now.

The rest is a classic Twitter success story. Ness contacted Lang and the two met at a conference in Michigan, where they decided to collaborate on the recently published study that confirms the X-shaped bulge made up of stars within our Milky Way galaxy.

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Ness, the study's lead author, is quoted in a NASA release."The bulge is a key signature of formation of the Milky Way. If we understand the bulge we will understand the key processes that have formed and shaped our galaxy."

An X formation in the Milky Way

The Milky Way is a so-called disk galaxy, consisting of stars and gas that rotate in a disk formation. The material isn't distributed evenly throughout the disk, and where there are clumps of stars and gas, what is called a "stellar bar" can form.

A stellar bar is made up of stars that are moving in a box-shaped orbit around the center of the galaxy. The Milky Way has a stellar bar and two-thirds of the disk galaxies that human beings have observed incorporate similar stellar bars.

The X-shaped structure forms as the stellar bar becomes unstable over time. As the bar formation deteriorates, it buckles so that some of the stars orbit in and out of the plane of the galaxy. While previous studies have hinted at the existence of the X-shaped structure within the Milky Way, the new analysis is the first that actually shows an image of the stellar bulge.