This artist's illustration shows an enormous halo of hot gas (in blue) around the Milky Way galaxy. Also shown, to the lower left of the Milky Way, are the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, two small neighboring galaxies (roll your mouse over the image for labels). The halo of gas is shown with a radius of about 300,000 light years, although it may extend significantly further.
Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory was used to estimate [link to press release] that the mass of the halo is comparable to the mass of all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If the size and mass of this gas halo is confirmed, it could be the solution to the "missing-baryon" problem for the Galaxy.
In a recent study, a team of five astronomers used data from Chandra, ESA's XMM-Newton, and Japan's Suzaku satellite to set limits on the temperature, extent and mass of the hot gas halo. Chandra observed eight bright X-ray sources located far beyond the Galaxy at distances of hundreds of millions of light years. The data revealed that X-rays from these distant sources are selectively absorbed by oxygen ions in the vicinity of the Galaxy. The nature of the absorption allowed the scientists to determine that the temperature of the absorbing halo is between 1 million and 2.5 million Kelvins.
-Megan Watzke, CXC