A HST image of galaxy UGC 12158, which is thought to resemble the Milky Way in appearance A HST image of galaxy UGC 12158, which is thought to resemble the Milky Way in appearance - ImagesGram

A HST image of galaxy UGC 12158, which is thought to resemble the Milky Way in appearance


The Milky Way is the second-largest galaxy in the Local Group, with its stellar disk approximately 100,000 ly (30 kpc) in diameter and, on average, approximately 1,000 ly (0.3 kpc) thick. The Milky Way is approximately 1.5 trillion times the mass of the Sun. To compare the relative physical scale of the Milky Way, if the Solar System out to Neptune were the size of a US quarter (24.3 mm (0.955 in)), the Milky Way would be approximately the size of the contiguous United States. There is a ring-like filament of stars rippling above and below the relatively flat galactic plane, wrapping around the Milky Way at a diameter of 150,000–180,000 light-years (46–55 kpc), which may be part of the Milky Way itself.


Estimates of the mass of the Milky Way vary, depending upon the method and data used. The low end of the estimate range is 5.8×1011 solar masses (M☉), somewhat less than that of the Andromeda Galaxy. Measurements using the Very Long Baseline Array in 2009 found velocities as large as 254 km/s (570,000 mph) for stars at the outer edge of the Milky Way. Because the orbital velocity depends on the total mass inside the orbital radius, this suggests that the Milky Way is more massive, roughly equaling the mass of Andromeda Galaxy at 7×1011 M☉ within 160,000 ly (49 kpc) of its center. In 2010, a measurement of the radial velocity of halo stars found that the mass enclosed within 80 kiloparsecs is 7×1011 M☉. According to a study published in 2014, the mass of the entire Milky Way is estimated to be 8.5×1011 M☉, but this is only half the mass of the Andromeda Galaxy. A recent mass estimate for the Milky Way is 1.29×1012 M☉.

Much of the mass of the Milky Way seems to be dark matter, an unknown and invisible form of matter that interacts gravitationally with ordinary matter. A dark matter halo is conjectured to spread out relatively uniformly to a distance beyond one hundred kiloparsecs (kpc) from the Galactic Center. Mathematical models of the Milky Way suggest that the mass of dark matter is 1–1.5×1012 M☉. Recent studies indicate a range in mass, as large as 4.5×1012 M☉ and as small as 8×1011 M☉. The total mass of all the stars in the Milky Way is estimated to be between 4.6×1010 M☉ and 6.43×1010 M☉. In addition to the stars, there is also interstellar gas, comprising 90% hydrogen and 10% helium by mass, with two thirds of the hydrogen found in the atomic form and the remaining one-third as molecular hydrogen. The mass of the Milky Way's interstellar gas is equal to between 10% and 15% of the total mass of its stars. Interstellar dust accounts for an additional 1% of the total mass of the gas.

In March 2019, astronomers reported that the mass of the Milky Way galaxy is 1.5 trillion solar masses within a radius of about 129,000 light-years, over twice as much as was determined in earlier studies, and suggesting that about 90% of the mass of the galaxy is dark matter.