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Dark Clues to the Universe

By Dr. Marc Rayman

 

Urban astronomers are always wishing for darker skies. But that complaint is due to light from Earth. What about the light coming from the night sky itself? When you think about it, why is the sky dark at all?

 

Of course, space appears dark at night because that is when our side of Earth faces away from the Sun. But what about all those other suns? Our own Milky Way galaxy contains over 200 billion stars, and the entire universe probably contains over 100 billion galaxies. You might suppose that that many stars would light up the night like daytime!

Until the 20th century, astronomers didn’t think it was even possible to count all the stars in the universe. They thought the universe was infinite and unchanging.

Besides being very hard to imagine, the trouble with an infinite universe is that no matter where you look in the night sky, you should see a star. Stars should overlap each other in the sky like tree trunks in the middle of a very thick forest. But, if this were the case, the sky would be blazing with light. This problem greatly troubled astronomers and became known as “Olbers’ Paradox” after the 19th century astronomer Heinrich Olbers who wrote about it, although he was not the first to raise this astronomical mystery.

To try to explain the paradox, some 19th century scientists thought that dust clouds between the stars must be absorbing a lot of the starlight so it wouldn’t shine through to us. But later scientists realized that the dust itself would absorb so much energy from the starlight that eventually it would glow as hot and bright as the stars themselves.

Astronomers now realize that the universe is not infinite. A finite universe—that is, a universe of limited size—even one with trillions of stars, just wouldn’t have enough stars to light up all of space.

Although the idea of a finite universe explains why Earth’s sky is dark at night, other factors work to make it even darker.

The universe is expanding. As a result, the light that leaves a distant galaxy today will have much farther to travel to our eyes than the light that left it a million years ago or even one year ago. That means the amount of light energy reaching us from distant stars dwindles all the time. And the farther away the star, the less bright it will look to us.

 

Also, because space is expanding, the wavelengths of the light passing through it are expanding. Thus, the farther the light has traveled, the more red-shifted (and lower in energy) it becomes, perhaps red-shifting right out of the visible range. So, even darker skies prevail.

The universe, both finite in size and finite in age, is full of wonderful sights. See some bright, beautiful images of faraway galaxies against the blackness of space at the Space Place image galleries. Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/search/?q=gallery.

 

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


This Hubble Space Telescope image of Galaxy NGC 4414 was used to help calculate the expansion rate of the universe. The galaxy is about 60 million light-years away. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)