Dusty, Milky—Beautiful

by Morris Yoder | Jul 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Milky Way and Matterhorn
Milky Way over Matterhorn. Photo © iStock.

Our home galaxy is called the Milky Way because people have long had the idea that it looks like spilled milk drifting across the sky. It’s believed the ancient Greeks called it Galaxias Kyklos, which is translated Milky Circle. Later, the Romans named it Via Lactea which means Road of Milk. The Germans called it the Milchstrasse which is a combination of the words “milk” and “street.”

Of course, the Milky Way has nothing to do with milk. The glow we see stretching across the summertime night sky from north to south is the combined light of millions of stars that are too far away to see individually. It has the appearance of a long narrow stream since our galaxy has the shape of a flattened disc.

When we look toward the constellation Sagittarius, we are looking toward the center of the galaxy. That’s where the highest concentration of stars is, and it’s where the Milky Way glow is the brightest. Unfortunately, it’s too low on the southern horizon for most people in the northern hemisphere to see well.

In places far south of the equator like Australia, the center of the Milky Way passes directly overhead. Down there, if you’re away from city lights on a moonless night, it can cast a faint shadow. It was a nice surprise for me to see it shining so brightly during a trip to Australia. Light pollution has taken over to such an extent in North America that about 80% of people living there can’t even see the Milky Way at all.

The stars we see outside of the glowing band are all in the Milky Way too. Since they’re much closer, they can appear off to the side.

Even though it seems like the number of stars we see at night is mind boggling, we can only see about 2,000 stars without a telescope or binocular. That’s only a tiny fraction of the total number of stars in the Milky Way. There are about 50 million times more stars in that glowing band. This means when we look up and see individual stars on a dark night, we are only seeing about two millionths of one percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy!

A big area is needed to hold all those stars. If we could move at the speed of light, fast enough to circle the Earth seven times in one second, it would take about 100,000 years to cross the galaxy.

When looking at the Milky Way, it appears that there are patches of light and dark through the band. The dark patches are not areas without stars. They are areas where the interstellar dust is too thick for us to see through, so the distant stars are blocked from view.

Only the Creator can bring the appearance of something dusty, and something milky, together into one place, and turn it into such a splendid scene of beauty.

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