An illustration of the Milky Way

Uncharted Milky Way regions unveiled through new map

The Milky Way, known to be a spiral galaxy since the 1950s, presents a mystery in its precise structure, shape, and the exact count of its arms.


Uncharted regions of the Milky Way have been unveiled through a new map. For the very first time, an innovative application of chemical cartography has uncovered portions of the Milky Way’s spiral arms that previously lay hidden. A recent publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society describes this trailblazing work by Keith Hawkins, an assistant professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin.

Uncharted Regions of the Milky Way Unveiled Through New Map

Chemical cartography, essentially a mapping system that traces the distribution of elements throughout the Milky Way, has offered astronomers a novel way to locate celestial bodies based on their chemical composition rather than their light emissions. This technique, despite its historical roots, has only recently begun to yield significant results, thanks to advancements in telescope technology.

“Creating increasingly accurate maps of the Milky Way is not unlike the endeavors of early explorers charting our world,” says Hawkins. “These maps are affirming our hypotheses, which require further exploration.”

Unveiling Our Galactic Home

The Milky Way, known to be a spiral galaxy since the 1950s, presents a mystery in its precise structure, shape, and the exact count of its arms. This is largely due to our position within the galaxy, which limits our vantage point. As Hawkins analogizes, “It’s akin to being in a massive city. You can observe the buildings and recognize the street you’re on, but comprehending the entire city layout is challenging unless you’re airborne.”


Even with our restricted view, astronomers have formulated accurate models of our galaxy, and artists have produced captivating illustrations. However, Hawkins aimed to test these representations’ validity and ascertain if chemical cartography could offer a more transparent image of the Milky Way’s spiral arms.

Navigating Obscurity with Chemical Cartography

Traditionally, mapping the Milky Way involved locating clusters of young stars, as their presence indicates the existence of a spiral arm. However, clouds of dust often obstruct stars, thwarting attempts to detect their light and leaving certain regions of the Milky Way’s arms undiscovered. Chemical cartography, with its emphasis on “metallicity”—the metal-to-hydrogen ratio on a star’s surface—fills these gaps in our knowledge.

To construct his map, Hawkins studied the metallicity distribution in the Milky Way, focusing on our sun’s surroundings. His results highlighted previously uncharted regions of our galaxy, reinforcing the efficacy of chemical cartography in identifying the Milky Way’s structure and formation. “The discovery that the spiral arms are indeed rich in metals underscores the value of this technique in comprehending our galaxy,” says Hawkins.

The Promise of Chemical Cartography

The advent of increasingly potent telescopes fortifies the potential of chemical cartography. Hawkins’ research leaned heavily on data from the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fibre Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) and Gaia space telescope. The expansive data offered by Gaia enables researchers to escalate chemical cartography to a galactic scale.


Gaia’s data has provided the most comprehensive chemical overview of the Milky Way so far, yet it only accounts for approximately one percent of the Galaxy. As Gaia continues to survey the sky and new telescopes become operational, the potential for chemical cartography to transform our understanding of the Milky Way and the universe continues to grow. Hawkins concludes, “We’ve truly entered a new era.”

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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