The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Solar System, with the name describing 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 visible diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years (ly).
It is estimated to contain 100–400 billion stars. The dark matter halo around the Milky Way may span as much as 2 million light years. The Solar System is located at a radius of about 27,000 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*, a supermassive black hole of 4.100 (± 0.034) million solar masses. The Milky Way as a whole is moving at a velocity of approximately 600 km per second with respect to extragalactic frames of reference. The oldest stars in the Milky Way are nearly as old as the Universe itself and thus probably formed shortly after the Dark Ages of the Big Bang. The Milky Way has several satellite galaxies and is part of the Local Group of galaxies, which form part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is itself a component of the Laniakea Supercluster.
The Milky Way consists of a bar-shaped core region surrounded by a warped disk of gas, dust and stars. The mass distribution within the Milky Way closely resembles the type Sbc in the Hubble classification, which represents spiral galaxies with relatively loosely wound arms. The Galactic Center is marked by an intense radio source named Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A-star). The motion of material around the center indicates that Sagittarius A* harbors a massive, compact object. This concentration of mass is best explained as a supermassive black hole (SMBH) with an estimated mass of 4.1–4.5 million times the mass of the Sun. The rate of accretion of the SMBH is consistent with an inactive galactic nucleus, being estimated at 1×10−5 M☉ per year. Outside the gravitational influence of the Galactic bar, the structure of the interstellar medium and stars in the disk of the Milky Way is organized into four spiral arms. Spiral arms typically contain a higher density of interstellar gas and dust than the Galactic average as well as a greater concentration of star formation, as traced by H II regions and molecular clouds.
The Milky Way began as one or several small overdensities in the mass distribution in the Universe shortly after the Big Bang 13.61 billion years ago. Some of these overdensities were the seeds of globular clusters in which the oldest remaining stars in what is now the Milky Way formed. Nearly half the matter in the Milky Way may have come from other distant galaxies. Nonetheless, these stars and clusters now comprise the stellar halo of the Milky Way. Within a few billion years of the birth of the first stars, the mass of the Milky Way was large enough so that it was spinning relatively quickly. Due to conservation of angular momentum, this led the gaseous interstellar medium to collapse from a roughly spheroidal shape to a disk.
Therefore, later generations of stars formed in this spiral disk. Most younger stars, including the Sun, are observed to be in the disk. Since the first stars began to form, the Milky Way has grown through both galaxy mergers (particularly early in the Milky Way's growth) and accretion of gas directly from the Galactic halo. The Milky Way is currently accreting material from several small galaxies, including two of its largest satellite galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, through the Magellanic Stream. Direct accretion of gas is observed in high-velocity clouds like the Smith Cloud. Cosmological simulations indicate that, 11 billion years ago, it merged with a particularly large galaxy that has been labeled the Kraken.
However, properties of the Milky Way such as stellar mass, angular momentum, and metallicity in its outermost regions suggest it has undergone no mergers with large galaxies in the last 10 billion years. This lack of recent major mergers is unusual among similar spiral galaxies; its neighbour the Andromeda Galaxy appears to have a more typical history shaped by more recent mergers with relatively large galaxies. At first confined to their own solar or star system, most known advanced civilizations discovered wormhole travel around the 22nd or 23rd century and began exploring the galaxy. The latter will then witness all the historical events that have shaped the geopolitical situation that we know today.