Deadly Earthquake Traveled At ‘Supersonic’ Speeds – Why That Matters

When the earthquake struck on September 28, 2018, Indonesia’s Sulawesi island flowed like water. Currents of mud swallowed anything in their paths, sweeping away entire sections of the city of Palu and crosscutting the region’s neat patchwork of crop fields. Minutes after the shaking began, locals were caught unaware by a wall of water that crashed onshore with devastating results.

As the sun set that evening, thousands were missing. Within days, the smell of corpses permeated the air. The 7.5-magnitude event was 2018’s deadliest quake, killing more than 2,000 people.

In the efforts to understand how this fatal series of events clicked into place, much attention has focused on the surprise tsunami. But a pair of new studies, published February 4 in Nature Geoscience, tackles another remarkable aspect: The earthquake itself was likely an unusual and incredibly fast breed of temblor known as supershear.

The Palu quake cracked through the earth at nearly 9,200 miles an hour—fast enough to get from LA to New York City in a mere 16 minutes. Such a fast rupture causes earthquake waves to pile up in what’s known as a Mach front, similar to the pressure wave from a plane traveling at supersonic speed. This concentrated cone of waves can amplify the quake’s destructive power.

“It’s like a sonic boom in an earthquake,” says Wendy Bohon, an earthquake geologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS).

While it’s not yet possible to say for sure if the supershear speed intensified the Indonesia quake’s landslides, liquefaction, or tsunami, the pair of new studies does offer a rare look at this little-understood and potentially deadly phenomenon.

“We have observed only a handful of supershear earthquakes, and even fewer with this level of detail,” says seismologist Jean-Paul Ampuero of the Université Côte d’Azur in France, a coauthor of one of the studies.

“This is going to tell us something fundamental about the way the Earth works,” says Bohon, who was not involved in either study. “And it has the potential to actually save lives and help us inform people in a better way.”

Unzipping the Earth
During an earthquake, the entire length of a fracture doesn’t break all at once. Rather, it unzips the planet’s surface at a rate known as the rupture speed.

Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at the University of Southampton, explains the phenomenon by grabbing a colorful flier sitting on a table at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C. He makes a tiny tear on one side, and says: “Imagine that’s your nucleation,” or the start of a rupture on a fault. The rupture speed is how fast that point moves through time, he says, and with a sharp jerk, he rips the flier in two.

It’s this speed that caught geologists’ attention with the Indonesia event. To take a closer look, Ampuero and his colleagues harnessed the power of the growing global network of seismic stations, which detect the echoes of earthquakes from hundreds of miles away. From that network, they collected data from 51 locations across Australia.

By studying the arrival of earthquake waves at each station, the team recreated the racing rupture. It’s similar to how your brain figures out where a sound is coming from, Ampuero explains. If someone is talking to you from the right, the noise arrives at your right ear a fraction of a second before your left. Your brain then uses that delay to locate the speaker.

“What we’re doing is the same, [but] instead of using only two ears we’re using hundreds of ears,” he says. “Each ear is one seismometer on the ground.”

This revealed that the temblor broke so fast that the rupture speed overtook a type of radiating waves known as shear waves, thus the term “supershear.” Over roughly 36 seconds, the quake cracked southward through some 93 miles of Earth’s surface.

“That is the ground breaking that fast, which is pretty amazing,” marvels Hicks, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Earthquake superhighway

A second team took a closer look at changes to the surface after the temblor ripped through, using data and imaging from satellites before and after the event.

“We were immediately struck by the sharpness of the rupture at the surface south of the city of Palu and by the great amount of displacement in this area,” study coauthor Anne Socquet, of the Université Grenoble Alpes in France, writes in an email.


Magnetic north just changed. Here’s what that means.

This analysis suggests that the land largely shifted horizontally, and that the change was massive: The ground offset by 16.4 feet at its maximum point south of Palu City. The shift was so large, it was easily seen in images of the region post-quake. Roads were offset; buildings seemingly cut in two.

“This is definitely huge for a [magnitude] 7.5 earthquake,” Socquet says. “And this is likely enhanced by the fact that this earthquake was supershear.” It didn’t happen just at the surface, either, but also as deep as roughly three miles underground.

In the southern stretches of the fault, an important feature behind this rapid speed and the deep shift is what Socquet calls its “maturity.” Tectonics have tested this break time and time again, continually shoving the blocks of Earth side by side and carving the fault into a fairly continuous, smooth, straight break—features previously associated with other examples of super-fast ruptures.

Anatomy of supershear

Yet even within this category of rare events, the Palu quake may stand apart. Most supershear earthquakes actually travel even faster than the one in Palu, cruising along almost as fast as another type of earthquake wave known as a pressure wave. These commonly zoom by around 11,200 miles an hour. But Ampuero and his colleagues found that while the Indonesia quake was fast enough to be supershear, it didn’t hit this top speed.

“It’s extremely rare to see events in this intermediate range,” he says.

Ampuero and his colleagues believe the discrepancy is due to the fact that earthquake models, including the one used in this work, commonly assume that the rocks surrounding a fault are one intact unit. But that’s not always the case in the real world, where zones of fractures around the break can slow the speeds of a quake’s associated waves through the surface.

If true for Sulawesi, this would mean the quake’s pressure waves could have moved about as fast as its rupture speed, as is expected for supershear ruptures. The quake was still weirdly slow for supershear, but at least its waves and rupture would have moved at the right relative speeds. However, the scientists won’t know for sure that this was the case without more study in the region.

That’s not the only thing unusual about the event. September’s earthquake also seemed largely undeterred by two major bends in the fault. Zigs and zags along the rupturing fault usually slow earthquakes, like cars on a winding road, but not this one. And unlike most supershear breaks, which need a little warmup, the Palu temblor seemed to hit its galloping pace early on.

“This earthquake is like a Lamborghini,” Bohon says. “It goes from zero to 60 in no time.”

This behavior raises even more questions. Could the fault be straighter at depth? This would have helped it barrel through bends higher up, Ampuero notes. Did smaller foreshocks supercharge the big quake? This could have sent it galloping out of the gates. But this early speed could also have to do with the roughness of the fault, which could stick the sides together like the rough sides of sandpaper and cause the ground to break with extra oomph.

More to come?
These unusual features make this earthquake all the more valuable, since they can help researchers better understand both where and how super-fast quakes can happen. The scientists who reviewed the work all stressed the significance of this information for future modeling and hazard assessments not just in Indonesia, but around the globe.

“What happened here could likely happen on other faults, especially major plate-boundary faults,” says Eric Dunham, a geophysicist at Stanford University.

“This type of fault is the same one we can find in California, Northern Turkey, Northern Aegean, the Dead Sea fault zone, Central Asia,” says earthquake geologist Sotiris Valkaniotis, who was not involved in the new studies. “The detections from this earthquake apply worldwide.”

Highly Collimated Jet Spotted From The Red Square Nebula

Astronomers have detected a highly collimated, bipolar jet from the so-called Red Square Nebula (RSN) surrounding the B[e]-type star MWC 922. The newly discovered jet could reveal more insights into the nature of the RSN and its emission. The finding is detailed in a paper published January 24 on the arXiv pre-print repository.

Located approximately 5,500 light years away in the constellation Serpens, MWC 922 is a peculiar, infrared excess B[e] star surrounded by a square-shaped nebula. Many studies of the RSN have been carried out to date, which, for instance, revealed another nebula similar to RSN, however, little is known about the properties and evolution of RSN and MWC 922.

Now, a new study conducted by University of Colorado’s John Bally and Zen H. Chia, sheds more light on the nature of RSN and its host. Using the Double Imaging Spectrograph (DIS) on the 3.5 meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory (APO) located near Sunspot, New Mexico, the astronomers unveiled the presence of a collimated jet orthogonal to the previously identified extended nebula associated with RSN.

“Deep, narrow-band images of the Red Square Nebula and its source star, MWC 922, reveal a highly collimated and segmented, parsec-scale jet oriented orthogonal to the previously identified emission-line nebula which can be traced towards the southwest,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

According to the study, the jet, as well as RSN, appear to be externally ionized. Describing the structure of the newfound jet, Bally and Chia revealed that it consists of a pair of segments with sizes of 0.5 light years each, on either side of the host star, separated by gaps. They noted that the most distant jet segments disappear at around 1.97 light years from the star.

The researchers calculated that the speed of the jet is around 500 km/s and that the jet’s electron density is between 50 and 100 cm-3. These parameters allowed the authors of the paper to estimate the mass loss rate of the jet segments, which was found to be at a value between 50 and 100 billionths of a solar mass per year.

Trying to explain the real nature of the newly detected jet and the extended nebula, the scientists propose two hypotheses. The first scenario suggests that the observed features might be a large excretion disk or stream of ejecta shed by MWC 922 that is preferentially illuminated and ionized from the direction of the open cluster Messier 16.

“Because of its orientation, the southwest part shadows the northeast part. Faint, 70 μm emission traces warm dust at the surface,” the paper reads.

The second theory proposed by the researchers is based on the assumption that MWC 922 may have been ejected from Messier 16. In this scenario, the jet might be a tail of ejecta left behind the star as mass lost from the star interacts with the interstellar medium through which it moves.

Explaining A Universe Composed Of Matter

The universe consists of a massive imbalance between matter and antimatter. Antimatter and matter are actually the same, but have opposite charges, but there’s hardly any antimatter in the observable universe, including the stars and other galaxies. In theory, there should be large amounts of antimatter, but the observable universe is mostly matter.

“We’re here because there’s more matter than antimatter in the universe,” says Professor Jens Oluf Andersen at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU)Department of Physics. This great imbalance between matter and antimatter is all tangible matter, including life forms, exists, but scientists don’t understand why.

Physics uses a standard model to explain and understand how the world is connected. The standard model is a theory that describes all the particles scientists are familiar with. It accounts for quarks, electrons, the Higgs boson particle and how they all interact with each other. But the standard model cannot explain the fact that the world consists almost exclusively of matter. So there must be something we don’t yet understand.

When antimatter and matter meet, they annihilate, and the result is light and nothing else. Given equal amounts of matter and antimatter, nothing would remain once the reaction was completed. As long as we don’t know why more matter exists, we can’t know why the building blocks of anything else exist, either. “This is one of the biggest unsolved problems in physics,” says Andersen.

Researchers call this the “baryon asymmetry” problem. Baryons are subatomic particles, including protons and neutrons. All baryons have a corresponding antibaryon, which is mysteriously rare. The standard model of physics explains several aspects of the forces of nature. It explains how atoms become molecules, and it explains the particles that make up atoms.

“The standard model of physics includes all the particles we know about. The newest particle, the Higgs boson, was discovered in 2012 at CERN, says Andersen. With this discovery, an important piece fell into place. But not the final one. The standard model works perfectly to explain large parts of the universe, so researchers are intrigued when something doesn’t fit. Baryon asymmetry belongs in this category.

Physicists do have their theories as to why there is more matter, and thus why we undeniably exist. “One theory is that it’s been this way since the Big Bang,” says Andersen. In other words, the imbalance between matter and antimatter is a basic precondition that has existed more or less from the beginning.

Quarks are among nature’s smallest building blocks. An early surplus of quarks relative to antiquarks was propagated as larger units formed. But Andersen doesn’t care for this explanation. “We’re still not happy with that idea, because it doesn’t tell us much,” he says.

So why was this imbalance present from the beginning? Why did quarks initially outnumber antiquarks? “In principle, it’s possible to generate asymmetry within the standard model of physics—that is, the difference between the amount of matter and antimatter. But we run into two problems,” says Andersen.

First of all, scientists have to go way back in time, to just after the Big Bang when everything started—we’re talking about 10 picoseconds, or 10-11 seconds after the Big Bang.

The second problem is that temperatures have to be around 1 trillion degrees Kelvin, or 1015 degrees. That’s scorching—consider that the sun’s surface is only about 5700 degrees. Regardless, it is not sufficient to explain baryonic matter. “It can’t work. In the standard model, we don’t have enough matter,” Andersen says. “The problem is that the jump in the expectation value of the Higgs field is too small,” he adds for the benefit those with only a minimum grasp of physics.

“It’s probably not just our imagination that’s imposing limits, but lots of possibilities exist,” says Andersen. These possibilities therefore need to work together with the standard model. “What we’re really looking for is an extension of the standard model. Something that fits into it.”

Neither he nor other physicists doubt that the standard model is right. The model is continuously tested at CERN and other particle accelerators. It’s just that the model isn’t yet complete. Andersen and his colleagues are investigating various possibilities for the model to fit with the imbalance between matter and antimatter. The latest results were recently published in Physical Review Letters.

“Actually, we’re talking about phase transitions,” says Andersen. His group is considering processes of change in matter, like water turning into steam or ice under changing conditions. They’re also considering whether matter came about as a result of an electroweak phase transition (EWPT) and formed a surplus of baryons just after the Big Bang. The electroweak phase transition occurs by the formation of bubbles. The new phase expands, a bit like water bubbles, and takes over the entire universe.

Andersen and his colleagues tested the so-called “two Higgs doublet” model (2HDM), one of the simplest extensions of the standard model. They searched for possible areas where the right conditions are present to create matter. “Several scenarios exist for how the baryon asymmetry was created. We studied the electroweak phase transition using the 2HDM model. This phase transition takes place in the early stage of our universe,” says Andersen.

The process is comparable to boiling water. When water reaches 100 degrees Celsius, gas bubbles form and rise up. These gas bubbles contain water vapour which is the gas phase. Water is a liquid. When it transitions from the gas phase to the liquid phase in the early universe during a process in which the universe expands and is cooled, a surplus of quarks is produced compared to antiquarks, generating the baryon asymmetry.

Last but not least, the researchers are also doing mathematics. In order for the models to work in sync, parameters or numerical values have to fit so that both models are right at the same time. So the work is about finding these parameters. In the most recent article in Physical Review Letters, Andersen and his colleagues narrowed down the mathematical area in which matter can be created and at the same time correspond to both models. They have now narrowed the possibilities.

“For the new model (2HDM) to match what we already know from CERN, for example, the parameters in the model can’t be just anything. On the other hand, to be able to produce enough baryon asymmetry, the parameters also have to be within a certain range. So that’s why we’re trying to narrow the parameter range. But that’s still a long way off,” says Andersen. In any case, the researchers have made a bit of headway on the road to understanding why we and everything else are here.

MERMAIDs Reveal Secrets from Below the Ocean Floor

Seismologists use waves generated by earthquakes to scan the interior of our planet, much like doctors image their patients using medical tomography. Earth imaging has helped us track down the deep origins of volcanic islands such as Hawaii, and identify the source zones of deep earthquakes.

“Imagine a radiologist forced to work with a CAT scanner that is missing two-thirds of its necessary sensors,” said Frederik Simons, a professor of geosciences at Princeton. “Two-thirds is the fraction of the Earth that is covered by oceans and therefore lacking seismic recording stations. Such is the situation faced by seismologists attempting to sharpen their images of the inside of our planet.”

Some 15 years ago, when he was a postdoctoral researcher, Simons partnered with Guust Nolet, now the George J. Magee Professor of Geoscience and Geological Engineering, Emeritus, and they resolved to remediate this situation by building an undersea robot equipped with a hydrophone—an underwater microphone that can pick up the sounds of distant earthquakes whose waves deliver acoustic energy into the oceans through the ocean floor.

This week, Nolet, Simons and an international team of researchers published the first scientific results from the revolutionary seismic floats, dubbed MERMAIDs—Mobile Earthquake Recording in Marine Areas by Independent Divers.

The researchers, from institutions in the United States, France, Ecuador and China, found that the volcanoes on Galápagos are fed by a source 1,200 miles (1,900 km) deep, via a narrow conduit that is bringing hot rock to the surface. Such “mantle plumes” were first proposed in 1971 by one of the fathers of plate tectonics, Princeton geophysicist W. Jason Morgan, but they have resisted attempts at detailed seismic imaging because they are found in the oceans, rarely near any seismic stations.

MERMAIDs drift passively, normally at a depth of 1,500 meters—about a mile below the sea surface—moving 2-3 miles per day. When one detects a possible incoming earthquake, it rises to the surface, usually within 95 minutes, to determine its position with GPS and transmit the seismic data.

By letting their nine robots float freely for two years, the scientists created an artificial network of oceanic seismometers that could fill in one of the blank areas on the global geologic map, where otherwise no seismic information is available.

The unexpectedly high temperature that their model shows in the Galápagos mantle plume “hints at the important role that plumes play in the mechanism that allows the Earth to keep itself warm,” said Nolet.

“Since the 19th century, when Lord Kelvin predicted that Earth should cool to be a dead planet within a hundred million years, geophysicists have struggled with the mystery that the Earth has kept a fairly constant temperature over more than 4.5 billion years,” Nolet explained. “It could have done so only if some of the original heat from its accretion, and that created since by radioactive minerals, could stay locked inside the lower mantle. But most models of the Earth predict that the mantle should be convecting vigorously and releasing this heat much more quickly. These results of the Galápagos experiment point to an alternative explanation: the lower mantle may well resist convection, and instead only bring heat to the surface in the form of mantle plumes such as the ones creating Galápagos and Hawaii.”

To further answer questions on the heat budget of the Earth and the role that mantle plumes play in it, Simons and Nolet have teamed up with seismologists from the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, China, and from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). Together, and with vessels provided by the French research fleet, they are in the process of launching some 50 MERMAIDs in the South Pacific to study the mantle plume region under the island of Tahiti.

“Stay tuned! There are many more discoveries to come,” said professor Yongshun (John) Chen, a 1989 Princeton graduate alumnus who is head of the Department of Ocean Science and Engineering at SUSTech, which is leading the next phase of what they and their international team have called EarthScope-Oceans.

Earthquake with Magnitude 7.5 in Indonesia – an Unusual and Steady Speed

An international team of researchers from the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD-France), Université Côte d”Azur, University of California Los Angeles and California Institute of Technology has determined the propagation speed of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake which occurred in Indonesia in September 2018: 4.1 km/s along 150 km. The results, which also shed light on the earthquake rupture path, are published on February 4th in Nature Geoscience.

Earthquakes happen when rocks on either side of a tectonic fault shift suddenly in opposite directions. Two main seismic waves that carry out shaking of a breaking fault are S-waves, which shear rocks and propagate at about 3.5 km/s, and P-waves, which compress rocks and propagate faster, at about 5 km/s.

Geophysical observations show that the speed at which an earthquake ruptures along the fault is either slower than S-waves or almost as fast as P-waves. The latter, so-called supershear earthquakes, occur very rarely and can produce very strong shaking. Only a few have been observed, and they happen on faults that are remarkably straight, geological “superhighways” that present little obstacle to speeding earthquakes.

“Forbidden” speed range

In this study, the international team coordinated by Jean-Paul Ampuero, seismologist at IRD and Université Côte d”Azur, analysed the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Sulawesi island in Indonesia on September 28th, devastating Palu’s region.

The impact of the event—more than 2,000 deaths—was aggravated by a devastating sequence of secondary effects, involving soil liquefaction, landslides and a tsunami.

Thanks to a high-resolution analysis of seismological data, researchers identified the propagation speed of the earthquake: 4.1 km/s, an unusual speed, between the speed of S- and P-waves. “This is the first time we observed this speed so steadily,” underlines Jean-Paul Ampuero. “This earthquake ran in the ‘forbidden’ speed range, and can be considered as a supershear event, even if it’s not as fast as previous ones.”

By analyzing optical and radar images recorded by satellites especially re-tasked to observe the earthquake aftermath, the researchers determined the path of the fault rupture. They found that the fault was not straight, but had at least two major bends, and left more than five meters of ground offset across the city of Palu. ” This path has major obstacles, which should have reduced the earthquake’s speed, but it stayed at 4.1 km/s along 150 km,” says Jean-Paul Ampuero.

Toward a better anticipation of future earthquakes

The findings challenge current views of earthquakes in ways that could help researchers and public authorities prepare better for future events. “In classical earthquake models, faults live in idealized intact rocks “, says Ampuero, ” but real faults are wrapped in a layer of rocks that have been fractured and softened by previous earthquakes. Steady rupture at speeds that are unexpected on intact rocks can actually happen on damaged rocks, simply because they have slower seismic wave speeds.”

The Palu earthquake may offer the first clear test of such recent models if followed up by studies of the structure of the fault and its zone of damaged rocks. Because the impact of an earthquake depends strongly on its speed, such studies on other faults around the world could anticipate earthquake effects better.

Future work may also determine if the speed of the Palu earthquake enhanced its cascading effects, by promoting coastal and submarine landslides that in turn contributed to the tsunami.

Researchers Unearth an Ice Age in the African Desert

A field trip to Namibia to study volcanic rocks led to an unexpected discovery by West Virginia University geologists Graham Andrews and Sarah Brown.

While exploring the desert country in southern Africa, they stumbled upon a peculiar land formation—flat desert scattered with hundreds of long, steep hills. They quickly realized the bumpy landscape was shaped by drumlins, a type of hill often found in places once covered in glaciers, an abnormal characteristic for desert landscapes.

“We quickly realized what we were looking at because we both grew up in areas of the world that had been under glaciers, me in Northern Ireland and Sarah in northern Illinois,” said Andrews, an assistant professor of geology. “It’s not like anything we see in West Virginia where we’re used to flat areas and then gorges and steep-sided valleys down into hollows.”

After returning home from the trip, Andrews began researching the origins of the Namibian drumlins, only to learn they had never been studied.

“The last rocks we were shown on the trip are from a time period when southern Africa was covered by ice,” Andrews said. “People obviously knew that part of the world had been covered in ice at one time, but no one had ever mentioned anything about how the drumlins formed or that they were even there at all.”

WVU researcher unearths an ice age in the African desert
Andrew McGrady. Credit: WVU

Andrews teamed up with WVU geology senior Andy McGrady to use morphometrics, or measurements of shapes, to determine if the drumlins showed any patterns that would reflect regular behaviors as the ice carved them.

While normal glaciers have sequential patterns of growing and melting, they do not move much, Andrews explained. However, they determined that the drumlins featured large grooves, which showed that the ice had to be moving at a fast pace to carve the grooves.

These grooves demonstrated the first evidence of an ice stream in southern Africa in the late Paleozoic Age, which occurred about 300 million years ago.

“The ice carved big, long grooves in the rock as it moved,” Andrews said. “It wasn’t just that there was ice there, but there was an ice stream. It was an area where the ice was really moving fast.”

McGrady used freely available information from Google Earth and Google Maps to measure their length, width and height.

WVU researcher unearths an ice age in the African desert

“This work is very important because not much has been published on these glacial features in Namibia,” said McGrady, a senior geology student from Hamlin. “It’s interesting to think that this was pioneer work in a sense, that this is one of the first papers to cover the characteristics of these features and gives some insight into how they were formed.”

Their findings also confirm that southern Africa was located over the South Pole during this period.

“These features provide yet another tie between southern Africa and south America to show they were once joined,” Andrews said.

The study, “First description of subglacial megalineations from the late Paleozoic ice age in southern Africa” is published in the Public Library of Science’s PLOS ONE journal.

“This is a great example of a fundamental discovery and new insights into the climatic history of our world that remain to be discovered,” said Tim Carr, chair of the Department of Geology and Geography.

The Milky Way is Warped

The Milky Way galaxy’s disk of stars is anything but stable and flat. Instead, it becomes increasingly warped and twisted far away from the Milky Way’s center, according to astronomers from National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC).

From a great distance, the galaxy would look like a thin disk of stars that orbit once every few hundred million years around its central region, where hundreds of billions of stars, together with a huge mass of dark matter, provide the gravitational ‘glue’ to hold it all together.

But the pull of gravity becomes weaker far away from the Milky Way’s inner regions. In the galaxy’s far outer disk, the hydrogen atoms making up most of the Milky Way’s gas disk are no longer confined to a thin plane, but they give the disk an S-like warped appearance.

“It is notoriously difficult to determine distances from the sun to parts of the Milky Way’s outer gas disk without having a clear idea of what that disk actually looks like,” says Dr. Chen Xiaodian, a researcher at NAOC and lead author of the article published in Nature Astronomy on Feb. 4.

“However, we recently published a new catalogue of well-behaved variable stars known as classical Cepheids, for which distances as accurate as 3 to 5 percent can be determined.” That database allowed the team to develop the first accurate three-dimensional picture of the Milky Way out to its far outer regions.

Classical Cepheids are young stars that are some four to 20 times as massive as the sun and up to 100,000 times as bright. Such high stellar masses imply that they live fast and die young, burning through their nuclear fuel very quickly, sometimes in only a few million years. They show day- to month-long pulsations, which are observed as changes in their brightness. Combined with a Cepheid’s observed brightness, its pulsation period can be used to obtain a highly reliable distance.

“Somewhat to our surprise, we found that in 3-D, our collection of 1339 Cepheid stars and the Milky Way’s gas disk follow each other closely. This offers new insights into the formation of our home galaxy,” says Prof. Richard de Grijs from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and senior co-author of the paper. “Perhaps more importantly, in the Milky Way’s outer regions, we found that the S-like stellar disk is warped in a progressively twisted spiral pattern.”

This reminded the team of earlier observations of a dozen other galaxies which also showed such progressively twisted spiral patterns. “Combining our results with those other observations, we concluded that the Milky Way’s warped spiral pattern is most likely caused by torques—or rotational forcing—by the massive inner disk,” says Dr. LIU Chao, senior researcher and co-author of the paper.

“This new morphology provides a crucial updated map for studies of our galaxy’s stellar motions and the origins of the Milky Way’s disk,” says Dr. DENG Licai, senior researcher at NAOC and co-author of the paper.