Why is the sky dark at night?

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Our friends at the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland, Kentucky, asked a very good question. Why is it dark in space?

Hubble Deep Field

That question is not as simple as it may sound. You might think that space appears dark at night because that is when our side of Earth faces away from the Sun as our planet rotates on its axis every 24 hours. But what about all those other far away suns that appear as stars in the night sky? 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 went on forever. In other words, they thought the universe was infinite.

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." A paradox is a statement that seems to disagree with itself.

NGC 604 nebula

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 and 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 causes work to make it even darker.

Not only is the universe finite in size, it is also finite in age. That is, it had a beginning, just as you and I did. The universe was born about 15 billion years ago in a fantastic explosion called the Big Bang. It began at a single point and has been expanding ever since.

Van Gogh's painting, Starry Night

Because the universe is still expanding, the distant stars and galaxies are getting farther away all the time. Although nothing travels faster than light, it still takes time for light to cross any distance. So, when astronomers look at a galaxy a million light years away, they are seeing the galaxy as it looked a million years ago. The light that leaves that 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, because the distance between that galaxy and us constantly increases. 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.

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 gallery.