When we look at the night sky, filled with stars, it’s hard to resist counting. Just with the unaided eye, in dark skies, you can see a few thousand.
How many stars are there in the entire Universe? Before we get to that massive number, let’s consider what you can count with the tools available to you.
Milky Way. ESO/S. Guisard
Perfect vision in dark skies allows us to see stars down to about magnitude 6. But to really make an accurate census of the total number of stars, you’d need to travel to both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, since only part of the sky is visible from each portion of the Earth. Furthermore, you’d need to make your count over several months, since a portion of the sky is obscured by the Sun. If you had perfect eyesight and traveled to completely dark skies in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and there was no Moon, you might be able to get to count up almost 9,000 stars.
With a good pair of binoculars, that number jumps to about 200,000, since you can observe stars down to magnitude 9. A small telescope, capable of resolving magnitude 13 stars will let you count up to 15 million stars. Large observatories could resolve billions of stars.
But how many stars are out there? How many stars are there in the Milky Way?
Milky Way. Image credit: NASA
According to astronomers, our Milky Way is an average-sized barred spiral galaxy measuring up to 120,000 light-years across. Our Sun is located about 27,000 light-years from the galactic core in the Orion arm. Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way contains up to 400 billion stars of various sizes and brightness.
A few are supergiants, like Betelgeuse or Rigel. Many more are average-sized stars like our Sun. The vast majority of stars in the Milky Way are red dwarf stars; dim, low mass, with a fraction of the brightness of our Sun.
As we peer through our telescopes, we can see fuzzy patches in the sky which astronomers now know are other galaxies like our Milky Way. These massive structures can contain more or less stars than our own Milky Way.
Elliptical galaxy ESO 325-G004. ESO
There are spiral galaxies out there with more than a trillion stars, and giant elliptical galaxies with 100 trillion stars. And there are tiny dwarf galaxies with a fraction of our number of stars.
So how many galaxies are there?
According to astronomers, there are probably more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, stretching out into a region of space 13.8 billion light-years away from us in all directions.
And so, if you multiply the number of stars in our galaxy by the number of galaxies in the Universe, you get approximately 1024 stars. That’s a 1 followed by twenty-four zeros.
That’s a septillion stars.
But there’s more than that.
The observable Universe is a bubble of space 13.8 billion years in all directions.
It defines the amount of the Universe that we can see, because that’s how long light has taken to reach us since the Big Bang.
Astronomers have estimated the actual Universe is at least 93 billion light-years across, with only a fraction that will ever be observable to us. So add another couple of zeros to the total number.
And this is a minimum value. It’s even possible that the Universe is infinite, stretching on forever, with an infinite amount of stars.
That’s a lot of stars in the Universe.
Source: Universe Today, story by Fraser Cain