While we can think of space as a vast sea of darkness, all we have to do is look up at night to see it is interrupted by myriad stars, galaxies, and even a few..
Scientists recently used data from NASA’s New Horizons mission beyond Pluto to measure how dark the cosmic background really is. What they discovered affects what we believed we knew about the composition of the entire universe.
In short, space is so dark that there cannot be as many galaxies to dim their backgrounds as astronomers previously estimated.
“That’s an important number to know – how many galaxies are there?” Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute said in An explanation Tuesday. “We just don’t see the light of 2 trillion galaxies.”
It was the previous estimate derived from observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, but a new study The Astrophysical Journal, co-authored by Postman, suggests that the total number of galaxies in the universe is likely to be hundreds of billions rather than trillions.
Interestingly, this is closer to an even older number, assuming there were around 200 billion galaxies. This was based on Hubble data from the 1990s.
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With New Horizons’ location near the edge of the solar system, the surrounding sky is ten times darker than Hubble’s.
“These types of measurements are extremely difficult. Many people have tried this for a long time, ”said study co-author Tod Lauer of the National Laboratory for Infrared Optical Astronomy Research. “New Horizons gave us a point of view to measure the cosmic optical background better than anyone has ever been able to.”
The team’s results will be presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Wednesday.
The next, which is currently slated for Halloween, could provide additional information on the exact number and type of galaxies that provide the faint background that prevents the universe from going completely dark.
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