Welcome to the Milky Way Transit Authority: Big Pic
Assuming you had an interstellar spaceship, how would you navigate around the galaxy? For starters, you'd probably need a map. But there's billions of stars out there, how could you orientate a map to find the quickest route from Earth to the exoplanet called Gliese 777 b (in the constellation of Cygnus) for example?
You could just plot a route directly to your planned destination, but that would mean traversing the badlands between the Milky Way's spiral arms that contain few stars (and, presumably, few interstellar gas stations) than if you followed the curving arms.
In the style of London's famous Tube Map, Samuel Arbesman, research fellow at Harvard Medical School, has re-imagined the Milky Way, simplifying our cosmic home. Although the Milky Way Transit Authority (MWTA) was created for fun and pure curiosity, it does provide an an accurate insight to the scale and locations of various nebulae, clusters and the solar system's location (Sol) in our galaxy.
The original London "Tube Map" was designed by Harry Beck in 1931 who realized that from the perspective of a traveler inside one of the underground carriages, the physical locations of train stations were irrelevant. This is when Beck designed the various colored lines of the London Underground in the form of a basic circuit board-like diagram. The simplicity of the design has led to its widespread use in cities around the world.
Now, the postdoctorate researcher from Harvard has applied Beck's thinking to something a little larger than a metropolitan railway.
"I had re-read Carl Sagan's novel about a year ago, and in the story he alludes to some sort of cosmic Grand Central Station," he told Discovery News. "That, coupled with my longtime interest in transit maps, got me thinking about how to understand the vastness of our own galaxy by using the concept of transit maps."
In this case, Grand Central Station can be found in the center of the Milky Way's transit system, consisting of three "stations" where four transit lines branch out. Each line represents one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. Each arm is composed of billions of stars that orbit the galactic core, so it's not a massive leap of the imagination to think that a sufficiently developed galactic civilization might travel along these densely populated spiral arms.
"Since transit maps are essentially beautiful abstractions for distilling a city down to a set of linkages and interconnections, perhaps a similar sort of thing could be done for the Milky Way," he added.
So, what about that trip to Cygnus? Be sure to purchase a Day Pass ticket, take the Orion (Red) Line to the Eagle Nebula, then jump on the Sagittarius (Blue) Line to Carina. Be warned, I hear the station at Carina is expecting some demolition work soon, so jump on the Express to Cygnus as fast as you can to avoid delay (and radiation poisoning).