How much of the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye from earth?

  • When we see the Milky Way on a dark night are we seeing the bulk of the galaxy, or just our local arm? How much of the milky way is visible to the naked eye on a dark night?

  • Li Zhi

    Li Zhi Correct answer

    6 years ago

    At any one time, an average observer can see about 2,500 stars in a clear dark sky. Note that eyesight varies and sharp-eyed individuals may be able to see a half-magnitude dimmer stars than the average eye (apparent magnitude is a scale in which each integer is $2.51$ ($100^{0.2}$) times brighter or dimmer than the next consecutive integer.) A very dark sky may enable magnitude $+7.5$ or even $+8$ stars to be seen, but in a typical "dark" non-urban sky the limit is often $+5.5$ to $+6.5$.

    Supernovae can potentially be seen as far as 13 billion light-years (ly) away, essentially from the 'edge' of our observable universe. So, it's not saying much to say that a supernova might be seen across a distance of 100,000 ly.

    Some types of supernovae can be over $-22$ in absolute magnitude — where absolute magnitude is defined as their apparent magnitude if they were observed from a 32.6 ly distance (to be honest, I'm not sure if supernovae absolute brightness is defined in exactly this same way). By way of comparison, the Sun's abs. mag. is $+4.8$ (lower numbers indicate brighter stars).

    Because of the dust and interstellar medium, the possible distance we can see is just a small fraction of the size of the Milky Way. In reality, few stars are bright enough to be seen over 400 ly away. Deneb which has an estimated distance of 2,600 ly (but may be as close as 1,550 ly, the large uncertainty is due to its variation in brightness). Only 6 visible stars are thought to be farther from us than 1,000 ly.

    So, to sum up, looking inwards into the Milky Way, our visibility is very restricted to the nearest 1,000–2,000 ly (while the MW disk's radius is 50,000 to 90,000 ly and we're about 27,000 ly on this side of center, but only the brightest stars are visible from more than about 400 ly away.

    While looking away, we can see the Andromeda Galaxy (but not its individual stars) which is 2,500,000 ly from us. In other words, most people blame dust for the poor visibility, but that's mostly only relevant for telescopes. For us, our limited eye-sight is the real barrier (not to mention the dearth of really dark skies).

    Some of the facts are incorrect. The median naked eye stars is at a distance of 400 light years. About 10% of naked eye stars are further than 1000 light years. See Supernovae cannot be "seen" at distances of 13 billion light years. Most supernovae in our Galaxy could not be "seen".

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM