From Earth, we can distinguish the type of another galaxy very easily simply by observing the shape, colour, and structure of the galaxy when we image it. But since we are located inside the Milky Way, we cannot get an "outside view". Thus, how can we tell if we are located in either a spiral or an elliptical galaxy?

  • $\begingroup$ @Deveet Patel Would you comment on why you've put a bounty on this question? With MBR's solution, I'm not sure what there is left to answer. $\endgroup$
    – Moriarty
    Feb 5, 2014 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Deveet-Patel how about accepting an answer! Give your favourite a tick... $\endgroup$
    – Jeremy
    Mar 13, 2014 at 20:44

4 Answers 4


There are several clues.

The Milky Way is a flat disk

The first one, and the simplest one, is that we live in a disk. As you can see on images like the ones from the 2MASS survey in the infrared range: enter image description here

We clearly see that we are inside a disk, since what we see when we look around us is a disk seen edge-on. It does not look like an ellipsoid or any other shape; it looks like a disk.

The Milky Way has arms

The other strong clue we have is the velocity of stars of the Milky Way, we can measure. First, we see an overall rotational motions, and, when you look closely to the patterns (like in the following image, that is observations in the radio range of the Milky Way at Green Bank Observatory), you can deduce that stars are even ordered into spirals: enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ The second picture is very compelling...but I still don't get it, the black line of A-B-C-D doesn't really follow any real pattern (A-B yes, but then the pattern of the large red unlabeled splotch really doesn't look like it wraps around like that. I just don't really see it. Can you be more explicit? $\endgroup$ Dec 23, 2013 at 22:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MitchHarris: It's not a 2-D spatial map, it's a plot of velocity vs. galactic longitude. A spatial map is shown in the upper right corner, with segments A-B and C-? corresponding to what appear to be two subsets of the same spiral arm (with B-C-D apparently blocked from our view by the core). $\endgroup$ Dec 24, 2013 at 0:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note that the map in the second figure is actually radio emission from gas clouds, not stars, so it's really telling you that the (neutral hydrogen) gas in the Milky Way disk is organized into spiral arms. $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2015 at 20:48

In addition to @MBR's answer; there are other (less confusing) ways to represent the data. This paper describes the method used; basically they plot the position and motion of the stars, or of hydrogen clouds. The hydrogen distribution of our galaxy looks like this:
hydrogen map of the Galaxy
Now there's a lot of noise in these measurements, but generally you can see that the hydrogen clumps together in spirals.


One additional source of evidence comes from other spiral galaxies. We can see what they look like, how they are composed and we can see that the evidence we have from observations of our own galaxy fits with those galaxies. It's not as strong as the observational evidence shown elsewhere in the answers here, but it does support them.


The clues we have to the shape of the Milky Way are:

1) When you look toward the galactic center with your eye, you see a long, thin strip. This suggests a disk seen edge-on, rather than a ellipsoid or another shape. We can also detect the bulge at the center. Since we see spiral galaxies which are disks with central bulges, this is a bit of a tipoff.

2) When we measure velocities of stars and gas in our galaxy, we see an overall rotational motion greater than random motions. This is another characteristic of a spiral.

3) The gas fraction, color, and dust content of our galaxy are spiral-like.

So, overall, it's a pretty convincing argument. Of course, we have to assume our galaxy is not completely unlike the other galaxies we see--but I suppose once a civilization has accepted that it does not occupy any special place in the universe, arguments about similarity seem sensible.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .