How to Map a Galaxy When You’re Right in the Middle of It

The barred spiral galaxy UGC 12158 probably looks similar to how the Milky Way does from the outside. ESA/Hubble & NASA

The T-shirts and posters are common: an image of a galaxy, an arrow pointing to a spot in that galaxy, and a sign reading “You are here.”

But it’s all a big lie. That’s not the Milky Way, and we are not there. We have no images of our galactic home from the outside for a simple reason: We cannot travel that far. But the image isn’t wholly wrong (so long as it shows the galaxy with spiral arms, which not all versions do). We do live in a spiral galaxy, and our Sun orbits the center of that galaxy about one-third of

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