The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Solar System. The name describes the galaxy’s appearance from Earth: a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye.

The term Milky Way is a translation of the Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος (galaxías kýklos, “milky circle”).From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from within. Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610.

Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe.Following the 1920 Great Debate between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, observations by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.

The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy with a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years (ly). It is estimated to contain 100–400 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets. The Solar System is located at a radius of 26,490 (± 100) light-years from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of the Orion Arm, one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust.

The stars in the innermost 10,000 light-years form a bulge and one or more bars that radiate from the bulge.

The galactic center is an intense radio source known as Sagittarius A*, assumed to be a supermassive black hole of 4.100 (± 0.034) million solar masses.

Appearance

The Milky Way is visible from Earth as a hazy band of white light, some 30° wide, arching across the night sky. In night sky observing, although all the individual naked-eye stars in the entire sky are part of the Milky Way, the term “Milky Way” is limited to this band of light.

The light originates from the accumulation of unresolved stars and other material located in the direction of the galactic plane.

Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, are areas where interstellar dust blocks light from distant stars. The area of sky that the Milky Way obscures is called the Zone of Avoidance.

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