Its often said that the number of grains of sand on Earth equals the number of stars in the Universe. Well it looks like a recent study by astronomers working at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii have found that its more like three times the number of grains of sand on Earth! Working with some of the most sophisticated equipment available, astronomers from Yale University have been counting the number of dim red dwarf stars in nearby galaxies which has led to a dramatic rethink of the number of stars in the Universe.
Red dwarfs are small, faint stars compared to most others and until now, have not been detected in nearby galaxies. Pieter van Dokkum and his team from Yale University studied eight massive elliptical galaxies between 50 and 300 million lights years from us and discovered that these tiny stars are much more bountiful than first thought. “No one knew how many of these stars there were,” said Van Dokkum. “Different theoretical models predicted a wide range of possibilities, so this answers a long standing question about just how abundant these stars are.”
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For years astronomers have assumed that the number of red dwarfs in any galaxy was in the same proportion that we find here in the Milky Way but surprisingly the study revealed there are about 20 times more in the target galaxies. According to Charlie Conroy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center who also worked on the project, “not only does this affect our understanding of the number of stars in the Universe but the discovery could have a major impact on our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.” Knowing that there are now more stars than previously thought, this lowers the amount of dark matter (a mysterious substance that cannot be directly observed but its presence inferred from its gravitational influence) needed to explain the observed gravitational influence on surrounding space.
Not only has the discovery affected the amount of dark matter we expect to find but it also changes the quantity of planets that may exist in the Universe. Planets have recently been discovered orbiting around other red dwarf stars such as the system orbiting around Gliese 581, one which may harbour life. Now that we know there are a significantly higher number of red dwarfs in the Universe, the potential number of planets in the Universe has increased too. Van Dookum explains “There are possibly trillions of Earth’s orbiting these stars, since the red dwarfs they have discovered are typically more than 10 billion years old, so have been around long enough for complex life to evolve, its one reason why people are interested in this type of star.”
It seems then that this discovery, which on the face of it seems quite humdrum, actually has far reaching consequences that not only affect our view of the number of stars in the Universe but has dramatically changed our understanding of the distribution of matter in the Universe and the number of planets that may harbour intelligent life.
The new findings appear in the Dec. 1st online issue of the journal Nature.