Here it is: This is what our Milky Way looks like when seen from above! This artist's view, based on infrared observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope, is being presented at a press conference at the AAS Meeting in St. Louis this hour, and the embargo is now lifted. The images are "revealing that [the Milky Way] has just two major arms of stars instead of the four it was previously thought to possess," says an accompanying press release: "Since the 1950s, astronomers have produced maps of the Milky Way. Those early models were based on radio observations of gas in the galaxy, and suggested a spiral structure with four major star-forming arms, called Norma, Scutum-Centaurus, Sagittarius and Perseus. In addition to arms, there are bands of gas and dust in the central part of the galaxy. Our sun lies near a small, partial arm called the Orion Arm, or Orion Spur, located between the Sagittarius and Perseus arms. [...]
Large infrared sky surveys in the 1990s led to some major revisions of these models, including the discovery of a large bar of stars in the middle of the Milky Way. Infrared light can penetrate through dust, so telescopes designed to pick up infrared light get better views of our dusty and crowded galactic center. In 2005, [Robert] Benjamin [of the University of Wisconsin] and his colleagues used Spitzer's infrared detectors to obtain detailed information about our galaxy's bar, and found that it extends farther out from the center of the galaxy than previously thought. The team of scientists now has new infrared imagery from Spitzer of an expansive swath of the Milky Way, stretching 130 degrees across the sky and one degree above and below the galaxy's mid-plane. This extensive mosaic combines 800,000 snapshots and includes over 110 million stars.
Benjamin developed software that counts the stars, measuring stellar densities. When he and his teammates counted stars in the direction of the Scutum-Centaurus Arm, they noticed an increase in their numbers, as would be expected for a spiral arm. But, when they looked in the direction where they expected to see the Sagittarius and Norma arms, there was no jump in the number of stars. The fourth arm, Perseus, wraps around the outer portion of our galaxy and cannot be seen in the new Spitzer images. The findings make the case that the Milky Way has two major spiral arms, a common structure for galaxies with bars. These major arms, the Scutum-Centaurus and Perseus arms, have the greatest densities of both young, bright stars and older, so-called red-giant stars. The two minor arms, Sagittarius and Norma, are filled with gas and pockets of young stars. Benjamin said the two major arms seem to connect up nicely with the near and far ends of the galaxy's central bar."