Space & Time

Milky Way

Milky Way, the large, disk-shaped aggregation of stars, or galaxy, that includes the Sun and its solar system. In addition to the Sun, the Milky Way contains about 400 billion other stars. There are hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe, some of which are much larger and contain many more stars than the Milky Way.

The Milky Way is visible at night, appearing as a faintly luminous band that stretches across the sky. The name Milky Way is derived from Greek mythology, in which the band of light was said to be milk from the breast of the goddess Hera. Its hazy appearance results from the combined light of stars too far away to be distinguished individually by the unaided eye. All of the individual stars that are distinct in the sky lie within the Milky Way Galaxy.

From the middle northern latitudes, the Milky Way is best seen on clear, moonless, summer nights, when it appears as a luminous, irregular band circling the sky from the northeastern to the southeastern horizon. It extends through the constellations Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. In the region of the Northern Cross it divides into two streams: the western stream, which is bright as it passes through the Northern Cross, fades near Ophiuchus, or the Serpent Bearer, because of dense dust clouds, and appears again in Scorpio; and the eastern stream, which grows brighter as it passes southward through Scutum and Sagittarius. The brightest part of the Milky Way extends from Scutum to Scorpio, through Sagittarius. The center of the galaxy lies in the direction of Sagittarius and is about 25,000 light-years from the Sun (a light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 9.46 trillion km or 5.88 trillion mi).