A thousand trillion suns

By Phil Plait | May 5, 2010 12:30 pm

What does it look like to stare into infinity? Like this:

eso_abell315

Oh yes, you need to click that to see it in its glory. Because there’s a lesson here…

When you look up at night, you might see a thousand stars. With binoculars, you might see tens of thousands. With a decent telescope, that number goes up to a seemingly amazing tens of millions.

This one image shows tens of thousands of trillions of stars. A million stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth, with more to spare. And it’s only one small part of the sky.

The stars are contained in thousands of galaxies, each so far away that their might and power is reduced to a smudge. Some are big enough to reveal some structure, a pretty splash of a spiral or a delicate swirl, but most are so distant they are mere points of light.

The image is dominated by Abell 315, a cluster of galaxies located two billion light years away. It’s a sprawling city of galaxies, hundreds of island universes bound by their mutual gravity. If each has 100 billion stars — a fair guess — then there are trillions of stars visible here in a glance… and that’s dwarfed, crushed, by the other galaxies scattered in this cosmic portrait.

The picture was taken by the European Southern Observatory’s 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. Incredibly, this picture is the combination of only about 2.5 hours’ worth of exposures! There are a handful of individual stars in the image; they are located in the foreground, in our own galaxy. They might be a few hundred or even a few thousand light years away. Everything else in the picture is millions or billions of light years away.

eso_abell315_asteroids… or, almost everything. See those colored streaks, the red, green, and blue lines? Those are asteroids, rocks a couple of kilometers across. They have different colors because this image is a composite of three separate exposures using a red, green, and blue filter. During each exposure, the asteroids moved a bit compared to the background stars and galaxies due to the combined motion of the rocks and the Earth, leaving streaks. The color of the streak corresponds to the filter used in the exposure.

Assuming these are main belt asteroids, they are perhaps 100 – 200 million kilometers away. Our space probes take months or years to get that far from Earth, yet these are the nearest objects by far in this picture! The most distant galaxy you can find in this image is something like 100,000,000,000,000 times farther away.

Every now and again, as does everyone, I find myself consumed with the drama in my life. Personal interactions, local troubles, global issues. These are all important, sometimes even crucial. But when I can, I try to remember to leverage myself out, to try to gain some perspective.

Gazing into the depths of space, plummeting into the environs of a hundred quadrillion suns… that’s where true perspective can be found.

Credit: ESO/J. Dietrich

Comments (61)

  1. Allen

    I love these kinds of images. First time I saw the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image it blew my mind. When I see the immensity of the Universe, it’s hard for me to think that we’re the only life in the Universe.

    How large of an area of sky is this image?

  2. bigjohn756

    Please don’t bother me for a while, I’ll be counting galaxies. I’ll let you know how many there really are.

  3. himtha

    i really like this

  4. Craig

    Cool! By the way, why do the asteroid streaks have breaks in them?

  5. Chris Winter

    The Moody Blues again:

    “The mighty light of 10,000 suns
    Challenges infinity, and is soon gone.”

  6. Big Al

    Craig, my guess they tumble, and apparent brightness varies with surface area illuminated.

  7. Mandelbrot5

    I second Allen’s question of size. The best answer would be in both arc seconds and some frame of reference, such as a dime held at arm’s length.

  8. Jeff in Tucson

    @The Chemist: Thank you for that image, I just saved it to my collection of AWESOME internet images.

    @Craig/Big Al: Perhaps multiple exposures were taken in each filter, and the gap corresponds to the CCD readout time between exposures. This is a common practice amongst professional astronomical observations in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the data. If they took one looong exposure, there’s risk they could saturate the CCD in areas of interest. Conversely, multiple shorter exposures can be combined in the data reduction pipeline to give you the data characteristics that you need without this saturation risk.

  9. DrFlimmer

    Every now and again, as does everyone, I find myself consumed with the drama in my life. Personal interactions, local troubles, global issues. These are all important, sometimes even crucial. But when I can, I try to remember to leverage myself out, to try to gain some perspective.

    Gazing into the depths of space, plummeting into the environs of a hundred quadrillion suns… that’s where true perspective can be found.

    That’s not only philosophical, it’s also true. If a few more people would look up at night, gazing at stars and slow their pace — maybe a little more rest and a little more peace is gained in this far too restless world!

    Sometimes these stars just want to tell us: “Relax, dude!” There are things that are more important than all this rushing……….

  10. John Baxter

    The numbers are beyond me (MIT failed to prepare me for them, I guess). I’m trying to decide between “lots” and “a whole bunch”.

  11. @Allen/Mandelbrot5: According to the ESO website, the field of view is 34 x 33 arcminutes. The apparent diameter of the full moon is 31 arcminutes.

    What an amazing picture!

  12. Who else has the Galaxy Song playing in their heads looking at that image? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqtdpuZxvk

    We aren’t a pale blue dot, not even a speck, or a dust mote in comparison to the universe

  13. I really liked that post, good stuff.

  14. I counted a buh-jillion.

  15. Big Al

    @Jeff: The CCD has to “blink” every so often. Cool, thanks.

  16. Ilya

    @Allen @Mandelbrot5
    field of view is 34 x 33 arcminutes, according to description

  17. *sigh* It’s gonna take some work to find Waldo.

  18. James Morasco

    In the bottom picture, above and to the left of the red streak in the bottom right hand corner, are those two galaxies colliding? Or have I been studying too long today? Either way, great post Phil.

  19. Scott Imbeau

    That many stars and yet this was all made for our benefit in 600o years and we’re all alone. (rolls eyes)

  20. Douglas Troy

    See, and here I thought the blue streak was the TARDIS …

  21. Alec

    With my Google-fu powers, I found out that 2 billion light years is about…wait for it…

    11,756,999,600,000,000,000,000 miles away.

    Wow.

  22. MadScientist

    I say the RGB streaks are a fleet of UFOs.

  23. Last 2 paragraphs…really, really well said. :)

  24. Every now and again, as does everyone, I find myself consumed with the drama in my life. Personal interactions, local troubles, global issues. These are all important, sometimes even crucial. But when I can, I try to remember to leverage myself out, to try to gain some perspective.
    Gazing into the depths of space, plummeting into the environs of a hundred quadrillion suns… that’s where true perspective can be found.

    Yeah! Well put, I say. That’s essentially what I thought when I first saw the Eagle Nebula’s “Pillars of Creation” imaged by Hubble. As big as our lives can seem, we can also see them as miniscule.

  25. Yes I agree sawilhelm, the last 2 paragraphs are very well put by Phil. With all the bickering and fighting on this planet, we could all do with looking outwards to the sheer vastness of the universe, and get things into perspective.

    A few words spring to mind with this image…staggering, unfathomable, immense ! But more than anything, it is the great unknown…what the hell is out there in all those galaxies? What weird life forms might live around those trilions of suns? Desert planets, ice planets, ocean planets, planets swarming with life, planets with intelligent beings, planets you would never imagine ?

    But we can only ever…imagine !

  26. Tavi Greiner

    Awesome post! Just to give us all an idea of where in the sky this is, the Abell 315 cluster is located in the constellation Cetus, between Cetus’ “Mira” and Pisces’ “Alrescha”. Unfortunately, Cetus and Pisces currently rise with the Sun, but they’ll be rising before morning twilight within about two months. While we won’t be able to see what the ESO image reveals, we can certainly look in that direction and think about what we’ve seen here. :)

  27. Crudely Wrott

    @20, Thanks you, long eared one, for the chuckle that I’m still chuckling. 8^)

    Down at the very bottom of the image about halfway from center to the right edge there is a very interesting something or other. See? Looks like two tadpoles square dancing. Is it two very open spiral galaxies merging? It might be two galaxies along a line of sight, one closer.

    It’s a very arresting sight . . . and very awesomely wonderful and wicked cool. Cooler still is the prospect of future images from instruments just recently deployed and others, like the James Webb Telescope, soon to open their eyes that we might see.

  28. Joe

    Somewhere, Carl Sagan is smiling.

  29. jearley

    #21:
    Good eye! In the embiggened photo, it certainly looks like a collision/merger in progress. I also got started looking for the asteroid streaks and I counted 25 or so in just a few minutes of searching. Given the size of the image, that is impressive, to me at least.

  30. Larry

    Whenever I see images like this, I like to wonder if there is someone out there among all those stars staring back at us.

  31. Mike

    Loved this post. If my mind could comprehend a number as large as the quantity of stars here I’m sure it would melt.

  32. James H

    I want warp drive to go see it all.

  33. Floyd

    Your article’s title reminds me again of Carl Sagan: “billions and billions,” even if he didn’t really say that.
    Cosmos was an astounding television series, maybe the best PBS ever made; I still have the book.

  34. Mighty Favog

    Yes, really puts things in perspective. Kind of a DIY Total Perspective Vortex.

  35. Thorne

    “What weird life forms might live around those trilions of suns?”

    Certainly none more weird than us!

  36. Gazing into the depths of space, plummeting into the environs of a hundred quadrillion suns… that’s where true perspective can be found.

    Careful Phil, don’t look too hard. Only one man has survived the
    Total Perspective Vortex!

  37. Jamey

    I would imagine there’s a grad student somewhere assigned to go over these images, and collect the information on the asteroid streaks, to pull as much information out of them as they can – after all, if they can identify streaks of different colors as the same asteroid, that gives them some idea of the color of the asteroid, timing information gives them *some* idea of likely orbit and distance (kinda like the KBO spotted with the Hubble Spotter Scope – I still haven’t figured out how they got size, velocity, and distance from one blink, without a *WHOLE* lot of assumptions).

  38. Sahil P

    Slightly off the topic, but I really like that after pouring millions of dollars into developing instruments, the observations made with those instruments are relatively open for all people. Is astronomy the last place where we do science mostly just for science’s sake? (ie no commercial gain) I’m not complaining about commercial gain. It is a really good driver of science (leaded petrol, CFC’s and chlorine gas excepted), but I find the idea of a bunch of geeks doing science for fun very attractive.

  39. How many of them have names? :)

  40. Navneeth

    @The Chemist: Thank you for that image, I just saved it to my collection of AWESOME internet images.

    Wat he sed.

  41. Michel
  42. Tsar Bomba

    What really grabs me about views like this is not the illuminated array of galaxies in the darkness. It’s that dark, black emptiness between the galaxies, revealing the raw face of infinity staring right back at me.

    I blinked.

  43. As well as Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”, Phil’s last two paragraphs bring this to mind:

    “How vast those orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the theatre upon which all our mighty designs, all our navigations, and all our wars are transacted, is when compared to them. A very fit consideration, and matter of reflection, for those kings and princes who sacrifice the lives of so many people, only to flatter their ambition in being masters of some pitiful corner of this small spot.”
    Christiaan Huygens, New Conjectures Concerning the Planetary Worlds, their Inhabitants and Productions, c. 1690.

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Neil Haggerth :

    Nice quote. :-)

    Awe-inspiring, splendid image & good philosophical write-up – thanks BA. :-)

    @ 11. DrFlimmer :

    If a few more people would look up at night, gazing at stars and slow their pace — maybe a little more rest and a little more peace is gained in this far too restless world!
    Sometimes these stars just want to tell us: “Relax, dude!” There are things that are more important than all this rushing……….

    I’ll second that. Very true.

    @ 29. Tavi Greiner Says:

    Awesome post! Just to give us all an idea of where in the sky this is, the Abell 315 cluster is located in the constellation Cetus, between Cetus’ “Mira” and Pisces’ “Alrescha”. Unfortunately, Cetus and Pisces currently rise with the Sun, but they’ll be rising before morning twilight within about two months. While we won’t be able to see what the ESO image reveals, we can certainly look in that direction and think about what we’ve seen here.

    That too – thanks Tavi. :-)

    But this one :

    @ 20. Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

    *sigh* It’s gonna take some work to find Waldo.

    Wins the thread for me! I laughed. :-D

    (Even if “Waldo” is actually called Wally over here in Oz.)

    ———————————————————–

    Here’s Five more quotes (hopefully thought-provoking & pertinent ones) for y’all :

    ‘Night hides the world but reveals a universe.’
    – Russian proverb.

    “…about 40 supernovae are exploding somewhere in the universe every second. However, light from most of these events won’t reach Earth for billions of years, if ever.”
    – Page 73, “Ask Astro” in ‘Astronomy’ magazine October 2008.

    “If you put three grains of sand inside a vast cathedral, that cathedral will be more densely packed with grains of sand than stars are found apart in space.”
    – Sir James Jeans, British astronomer, quoted on page 28, ‘Skywatching’, David H. Levy, Ken Fin Books, 1995.

    “Cosmology also tells us that there are perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe and that each contains roughly 100 billion stars. By a curious co-incidence, 100 billion is also the approximate number of cells in a human brain.”
    – Page 237, ‘StarGazer’, Dr Fred Watson, Allen & Unwin, 2004.

    “Yet here we are with our eyes and our minds and our curiosity, six billion passengers aboard a tiny blue boat, bobbing and wheeling our way around one vast Catherine wheel among many.”
    – P.246, Tim Ferris, ‘Seeing in the Dark’, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

  45. Grand Lunar

    For a brief moment, I thought the asteroids might be of different colors.
    Wouldn’t THAT be something!

    So we’re looking at quadrillions of stars, yes? Or is it closer to quintillions?

    Maybe THIS is what Dave Bowman saw when he uttered his famous line…

  46. Woah!! You don’t need drugs to enjoy this – just to enhance it :)

  47. alex j rynkiewicz

    , i work as a prison guard in wilkes-barre,pa 18702 USA and on 9july09, 940pm. i was hit in the head by a bean sized and shaped rock piece/ it is golden in color/ non magnetic/ weight 4 to 6 grains/ has 2 dark marks one on each side/like the start of ablation or the dark staining found under fusion crust/ fusion crust has blown off. i think it could be a OCH5 stoney meteorite piece. need help in identifing it. have 3 photos x24 power. thanks for any help. alex j rynkiewicz acesand@live.com

  48. Childermass

    There before him, a glittering catnip no Star-Kitten could resist, floated the planet Earth with all its peoples.

    He awaited, marshaling his thoughts and brooded over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to pounce next.

    But he would think of something.

  49. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    And it is only a minuscule bit of the grandeur that is our universe.

    wow2!

    Funny. But it is actually (wow2)2 or wow4, you know. On account of being a slice of 4D space-time. :-D

  50. Gary Ansorge

    53. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    When it comes to big numbers, I prefer using subtend, as in wow subtend 4,,,
    (means wow to the power of itself four times,,,)

    24. Alec

    Ah, just round it off and call it 12 sextillion miles.

    GAry 7

  51. Ken (a different Ken)

    I am reminded of a project we did in my elementary school – count to a million.

    Somebody got a whole bunch of quad paper, and whenever we had some free time we would take a piece of paper and draw an ‘X’ in each box. We’d give the paper along with the count of X’s on the page to the teacher, and somebody or other added them all up. It took several weeks with the whole school involved, and generated a *lot* of pieces of paper. But it put the number “million” in some sort of perspective.

    I look at the photo above, and the description, and started wondering how many elementary schools there are in the country, and how many years would be needed …

  52. Matt T

    @Neil Haggath:
    Thanks for that quote… although I’m sad to discover that High Prophet Sagan plagiarized his glorious “temporary masters of a fraction of a dot” line. Oh well, I will still forcibly convert everyone to Saganism when I become Overlord of the Universe. Under my reign of terror, everyone will need to demonstrate an understanding of the metaphysical implications of photos like this (and, of course, Hubble deep field and pale blue dot) before they are allowed to vote. Or breed. Or join Texas school boards.

    IOW: yeah. Wot Carl, Christiaan, and Dr P sed.

  53. Bill D

    When I stare at the picture, the galaxies begin to take on the faint outline of a honeycomb. Is this just my imagination, or am I actually seeing some of the weblike stucture of the universe?

  54. Drivethruscientist

    Just looking through the picture a bit …

    If you look at the bottom right hand corner there are four(ish) stars marked by the tan circle. If you go to the one nearest the bottom there’s a red streak to the left of it. To the left of that I think I see some galactic cannibalism going on :)

  55. Brian Too

    What meaning have I in relation to this? How can I make sense of this thing? How many eyes are looking back at me? Are we forever separated by time and space, ephemera floating upon the waves?

    If a human could defeat death and live forever, could our mind hold the vastness before us? Or perhaps we would grow in some measure to contain it all? Would we become gods or angels (or worse)?

    I feel rather small just now.

  56. Cosmonut

    Beautiful photo and great post !

    On one hand, we humans have shrunk the Earth so much, that sitting in India all the way across the planet, I can read this post at the click of a mouse.

    On the other hand, we shrink into complete insignificance before the Cosmos, lost in the face of infinity and eternity.

    Amazing, terrifying, and yet strangely consoling.

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