Looking Up: How many stars can you count?
By Peter Becker
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How many stars are there? That’s not a foolish question. It may be impossible to answer, but it keeps you wondering and hopefully a little humble. Counting the grains of sand on the beaches of the world may be easier.
On any given clear, moonless night, you can see several thousand stars without the aid of a telescope or even binoculars. Unfortunately that assumes that light pollution is not much of an issue where you live, an assumption we cannot dare make. Counting the stars in a given constellation is a way to gauge the severity of light pollution, or how clear the sky is.
In the entire sky in every direction, under ideal conditions, an estimated 8,000 stars are visible to unaided eyes. You will never see that many from the ground, since the Earth is under your feet!
The Milky Way Galaxy has an estimated 100 billion stars. We see well less than half of them because of being situated far to one side, and that the galaxy is filled with vast clouds of cosmic dust that obscure the stars behind them. There’s over 16 Milky Way stars for every person on Earth.
Consider, astronomers have estimated there may be as many as 100 billion galaxies, each one made up of billions of stars.
A Goddard Space Flight Center website estimated there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the entire universe. How they figure that is beyond me. That’s 10 to the 21st power, or one sextillion. How can we begin to comprehend such a large number? One sextillion is the same as a billion trillion, if that’s any help.
Scanning a starry night with a telescope can sweep up millions of stars. It is an amazing sight, especially when you are looking towards the Milky Way Band, where stars are most concentrated. I never tried counting, but in some eyepiece fields, surely there are a thousand stars in your eye at once. Noticing a faint but fuzzy glow in the background, it is amazing to contemplate you are peering even deeper into the unresolved fabric of the galaxy, teeming with stars and nebulosity beyond your telescope’s ability to see as individual celestial fires. The sheer glistening of stars, many you see gleaming with hues of color, is reminiscent of the story book pirate’s treasure chest full of gems of indescribable value.
Looking away from the Milky Way band with your telescope, the view still is salted with stars, although comparatively fewer. This is also a wonder, to attempt to imagine the incredible vastness not just from your backyard to the stars, but between the stars as well. Peering into the inky blackness between the stars, one can ponder the multitude of dim stars shining there but beyond reach except with larger and larger instruments. Here and there you will pick out a tiny, dim fuzzy patch. In most cases, these are distant galaxies, every one as magnificent as our own Milky Way Galaxy, many actually much bigger and containing billions more stars than in our own galactic city.
A telescope is not necessary to appreciate the depths of our universe. If you can find a reasonably dark observing site, the next clear, moonless night, look northeast for the Milky Way Band meandering up like a column of still smoke, through the W-shape of constellation Cassiopeia. Look to the right about 15 degrees, for the faint, hazy ellipse of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. Binoculars will help. Appreciate the fact that you are witnessing, a fragment of the galactic scheme of things- the Milky Way Band being the overlapped system of spiral arms of our own galaxy as seen from within, and a neighboring spiral galaxy, 2-1/2 million light years distant. M31 is estimated to be teeming with a trillion stars, far exceeding our own.
Counting stars may seem endless, and perhaps no less than counting or blessings - in this regard, including eyes to see, a mind to consider and a heart to be glad.
Full moon is on Nov. 6.
Keep looking up!