How Much Stuff is in a Light Year?

The Milky Way is an extremely big place. Measured from end to end, our galaxy in an estimated 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31,000 – 55,000 parsecs) in diameter. And it is extremely well-populated, with an estimated 100 to 400 million stars contained within. And according to recent estimates, it is believed that there are as many as 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. And our galaxy is merely one of trillions within the Universe.

So if we were to break it down, just how much matter would we find out there? Estimating how much there is overall would involve some serious math and incredible figures. But what about a single light year? As the most commonly-used unit for measuring the distances between stars and galaxies, determining how much stuff can be found within a single light year (on average) is a good way to get an idea of how stuff is out there.

Light Year:

Even though the name is a little confusing, you probably already know that a light year is the distance that light travels in the space of a year. Given that the speed of light has been measured to 299,792, 458 m/s (1080 million km/h; 671 million mph), the distance light travels in a single year is quite immense. All told, a single light year works out to 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers (5,878,625,373,183.6 mi).

Diagram showing the distance light travels between the Sun and the Earth. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Brews ohare

So to determine how much stuff is in a light year, we need to take that distance and turn it into a cube, with each side measuring one light year in length. Imagine that giant volume of space (a little challenging for some of us to get our heads around) and imagine just how much “stuff” would be in there. And not just “stuff”, in the sense of dust, gas, stars or planets, either. How much nothing is in there, as in, the empty vacuum of space?

There is an answer, but it all depends on where you put your giant cube. Measure it at the core of the galaxy, and there are stars buzzing around all over the place. Perhaps in the heart of a globular cluster? In a star forming nebula? Or maybe out in the suburbs of the Milky Way? There’s also great voids that exist between galaxies, where there’s almost nothing.

Density of the Milky Way:

There’s no getting around the math in this one. First, let’s figure out an average density for the Milky Way and then go from there. Its about 100,000 to 180,000 light-years across and 1000 light-years thick. According to my buddy and famed astronomer Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy), the total volume of the Milky Way is about 8 trillion cubic light-years.

And the total mass of the Milky Way is 6 x 1042 kilograms (that’s 6,000 trillion trillion trillion metric tons or 6,610 trillion trillion trillion US tons). Divide those together and you get 8 x 1029 kilograms (800 trillion trillion metric tons or 881.85 trillion trillion US tons) per light year. That’s an 8 followed by 29 zeros. This sounds like a lot, but its actually the equivalent of 0.4 Solar Masses – 40% of the mass of our Sun.

This image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows the bright star cluster NGC 6520 and its neighbour, the strangely shaped dark cloud Barnard 86. This cosmic pair is set against millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture.
Millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture. Credit: ESO

In other words, on average, across the Milky Way, there’s about 40% the mass of the Sun in every cubic light year. But in an average cubic meter, there’s only about 950 attograms, which is almost one femtogram (a quadrillionth of a gram of matter), which is pretty close to nothing. Compare this to air, which has more than a kilogram of mass per cubic meter.

To be fair, in the densest regions of the Milky Way – like inside globular clusters – you can get densities of stars with 100, or even 1000 times greater than our region of the galaxy. Stars can get as close together as the radius of the Solar System. But out in the vast interstellar gulfs between stars, the density drops significantly. There are only a few hundred individual atoms per cubic meter in interstellar space.

And in the intergalactic voids; the gulfs between galaxies, there are just a handful of atoms per meter. Like it or not, much of the Universe is pretty close to being empty space, with just trace amounts of dust or gas particles to be found between all the stars, galaxies, clusters and super clusters.

So how much stuff is there in a light year? It all depends on where you look, but if you spread all the matter around by shaking the Universe up like a snow globe, the answer is very close to nothing.

We have written many interesting articles about the Milky Way Galaxy here at Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts About the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, How Many Stars are There in the Milky Way?, Where is the Earth Located in the Milky Way?, How Far is a Light Year?, and How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

For more information, check out How many teaspoons are there in a cubic light year? at HowStuffWorks

Astronomy Cast also has a good episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 99: The Milky Way


How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

The Universe is an extremely big place. As astronomers looked farther into space over the centuries, and deeper into the past, they came to understand just how small and insignificant our planet and our species seem by comparison. At the same time, ongoing investigations into electromagnetism and distant stars led scientists to deduce what the the speed of light is – and that it is the fastest speed obtainable.

As such, astronomers have taken to using the the distance light travels within a single year (aka. a light year) to measure distances on the interstellar and intergalactic scale. But how far does light travel in a year? Basically, it moves at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second (1080 million km/hour; 671 million mph), which works out to about 9,460.5 billion km (5,878.5 billion miles) per year.

The Speed of Light:

Calculating the speed of light has been a preoccupation for scientists for many centuries. And prior to the 17th century, there was disagreement over whether the speed of light was finite, or if it moved from one spot to the next instantaneously. In 1676, Danish astronomer Ole Romer settled the argument when his observations of the apparent motion of Jupiter’s moon Io revealed that the speed of light was finite.

Light moves at different wavelengths, represented here by the different colors seen in a prism. Credit: NASA/ESA

From his observations, famed Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens calculated the speed of light at 220,000 km/s (136,701 mi/s). Over the course of the nest two centuries, the speed of light was refined further and further, producing estimates that ranged from about 299,000 to 315,000 km/s (185,790 to 195,732 mi/s).

This was followed by James Clerk Maxwell, who proposed in 1865 that light was an electromagnetic wave. In his theory of electromagnetism, the speed of light was represented as c. And then in 1905, Albert Einstein proposed his theory of Special Relativity, which postulated that the speed of light (c) was constant, regardless of the inertial reference frame of the observer or the motion of the light source.

By 1975, after centuries of refined measurements, the speed of light in a vacuum was calculated at 299,792,458 meters per second. Ongoing research also revealed that light travels at different wavelengths and is made up of subatomic particles known as photons, which have no mass and behave as both particles and waves.


As already noted, the speed of light (expressed in meters per second) means that light travels a distance of 9,460,528,000,000 km (or 5,878,499,817,000 miles) in a single year. This distance is known as a “light year”, and is used to measure objects in the Universe that are at a considerable distances from us.

Examples of objects in our Universe, and the scale of their distances, based on the light year as a standard measure. Credit: Bob King.

For example, the nearest star to Earth (Proxima Centauri) is roughly 4.22 light-years distant. The center of the Milky Way Galaxy is 26,000 light-years away, while the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda) is 2.5 million light-years away. To date, the candidate for the farthest galaxy from Earth is MACS0647-JD, which is located approximately 13.3 billion light years away.

And the Cosmic Microwave Background, the relic radiation which is believed to be leftover from the Big Bang, is located some 13.8 billion light years away. The discovery of this radiation not only bolstered the Big Bang Theory, but also gave astronomers an accurate assessment of the age of the Universe. This brings up another important point about measuring cosmic distances in light years, which is the fact that space and time are intertwined.

You see, when we see the light coming from a distant object, we’re actually looking back in time. When we see the light from a star located 400 light-years away, we’re actually seeing light that was emitted from the star 400 years ago. Hence, we’re seeing the star as it looked 400 years ago, not as it appears today. As a result, looking at objects billions of light-years from Earth is to see billions of light-years back in time.

Yes, light travels at an extremely fast speed. But given the sheer size and scale of the Universe, it can still take billions of years from certain points in the Universe to reach us here on Earth. Hence why knowing how long it takes for light to travel a single year is so useful to scientists. Not only does it allow us to comprehend the scale of the Universe, it also allows us to chart the process of cosmic evolution.

We have written many articles about the speed of light here at Universe Today. Here’s How Far is a Light Year?, What is the Speed of Light?, How Much Stuff is in a Light Year?, How Does Light Travel?, and How Far Can You See in the Universe?

Want more info on light-years? Here’s an article about light-years for HowStuffWorks, and here’s an answer from PhysLink.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast on this topic. Listen here, Episode 10: Measuring Distance in the Universe.


Finite Light — Why We Always Look Back In Time

Beads of rainwater on a poplar leaf act like lenses, focusing light and enlarging the leaf’s network of veins. Moving at 186,000 miles per second, light from the leaf arrives at your eye 0.5 nanosecond later. A blink of an eye takes 600,000 times as much time! Credit: Bob King

My attention was focused on beaded water on a poplar leaf. How gemmy and bursting with the morning’s sunlight. I moved closer, removed my glasses and noticed that each drop magnified a little patch of veins that thread and support the leaf.

Focusing the camera lens, I wondered how long it took the drops’ light to reach my eye. Since I was only about six inches away and light travels at 186,000 miles per second or 11.8 inches every billionth of a second (one nanosecond), the travel time amounted to 0.5 nanoseconds. Darn close to simultaneous by human standards but practically forever for positronium hydride, an exotic molecule made of a positron, electron and hydrogen atom. The average lifetime of a PsH molecule is just 0.5 nanoseconds.

Light takes about 35 microseconds to arrive from a transcontinental jet and its contrail. Credit: Bob King

In our everyday life, the light from familiar faces, roadside signs and the waiter whose attention you’re trying to get reaches our eyes in nanoseconds. But if you happen to look up to see the tiny dark shape of a high-flying airplane trailed by the plume of its contrail, the light takes about 35,000 nanoseconds or 35 microseconds to travel the distance. Still not much to piddle about.

The space station orbits the Earth in outer space some 250 miles overhead. During an overhead pass, light from the orbiting science lab fires up your retinas 1.3 milliseconds later. In comparison, a blink of the eye lasts about 300 milliseconds (1/3 of a second) or 230 times longer!

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment placed on the Moon by the Apollo 14 astronauts. Observatories beam a laser to the small array, which reflects a bit of the light back. Measuring the time delay yields the Moon’s distance to within about a millimeter. At the Moon’s surface the laser beam spreads out to 4 miles wide and only one photon is reflected back to the telescope every few seconds. Credit: NASA

Light time finally becomes more tangible when we look at the Moon, a wistful 1.3 light seconds away at its average distance of 240,000 miles. To feel how long this is, stare at the Moon at the next opportunity and count out loud: one one thousand one. Retroreflecting devices placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts are still used by astronomers to determine the moon’s precise distance. They beam a laser at the mirrors and time the round trip.

Venus as a super-thin crescent only 10 hours before conjunction on March 25. The planet was just 2.3 light minutes from the Earth at the time. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad

Of the eight planets, Venus comes closest to Earth, and it does so during inferior conjunction, which coincidentally occurred on March 25. On that date only 26.1 million miles separated the two planets, a distance amounting to 140 seconds or 2.3 minutes — about the time it takes to boil water for tea. Mars, another close-approaching planet, currently stands on nearly the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.

With a current distance of 205 million miles, a radio or TV signal, which are both forms of light, broadcast to the Red Planet would take 18.4 minutes to arrive. Now we can see why engineers pre-program a landing sequence into a Mars’ probe’s computer to safely land it on the planet’s surface. Any command – or change in commands – we might send from Earth would arrive too late. Once a lander settles on the planet and sends back telemetry to communicate its condition, mission control personnel must bite their fingernails for many minutes waiting for light to limp back and bring word.

Before we speed off to more distant planets, let’s consider what would happen if the Sun had a catastrophic malfunction and suddenly ceased to shine. No worries. At least not for 8.3 minutes, the time it takes for light, or the lack of it, to bring the bad news.

Pluto and Charon lie 3.1 billion miles from Earth, a long way for light to travel. We see them as they were more than 4 hours ago.  NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Light from Jupiter takes 37 minutes to reach Earth; Pluto and Charon are so remote that a signal from the “double planet” requires 4.6 hours to get here. That’s more than a half-day of work on the job, and we’ve only made it to the Kuiper Belt.

Let’s press on to the nearest star(s), the Alpha Centauri system. If 4.6 hours of light time seemed a long time to wait, how about 4.3 years? If you think hard, you might remember what you were up to just before New Year’s Eve in 2012. About that time, the light arriving tonight from Alpha Centauri left that star and began its earthward journey. To look at the star then is to peer back in time to late 2012.

The Summer Triangle rises fully in the eastern sky around 3 o’clock in the morning in late March. Created with Stellarium

But we barely scrape the surface. Let’s take the Summer Triangle, a figure that will soon come to dominate the eastern sky along with the beautiful summer Milky Way that appears to flow through it. Altair, the southernmost apex of the triangle is nearby, just 16.7 light years from Earth; Vega, the brightest a bit further at 25 and Deneb an incredible 3,200 light years away.

We can relate to the first two stars because the light we see on a given evening isn’t that “old.” Most of us can conjure up an image of our lives and the state of world affairs 16 and 25 years ago. But Deneb is exceptional. Photons departed this distant supergiant (3,200 light years) around the year 1200 B.C. during the Trojan War at the dawn of the Iron Age. That’s some look-back time!

Rho Cassiopeia, currently at magnitude +4.5, is one of the most distant stars visible with the naked eye. Its light requires about 8,200 years to reach our eyes. This star, a variable, is enormous with a radius about 450 times that of the Sun. Credit: IAU/Sky and Telescope (left); Anynobody, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia

One of the most distant naked eye stars is Rho Cassiopeiae, yellow variable some 450 times the size of the Sun located 8,200 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Right now, the star is near maximum and easy to see at nightfall in the northwestern sky. Its light whisks us back to the end of the last great ice age at a time and the first cave drawings, more than 4,000 years before the first Egyptian pyramid would be built.

This is the digital message (annotated here) sent by Frank Drake to M13 in 1974 using the Arecibo radio telescope.

On and on it goes: the nearest large galaxy, Andromeda, lies 2.5 million light years from us and for many is the faintest, most distant object visible with the naked eye. To think that looking at the galaxy takes us back to the time our distant ancestors first used simple tools. Light may be the fastest thing in the universe, but these travel times hint at the true enormity of space.

Let’s go a little further. On November 16, 1974 a digital message was beamed from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to the rich star cluster M13 in Hercules 25,000 light years away. The message was created by Dr. Frank Drake, then professor of astronomy at Cornell, and contained basic information about humanity, including our numbering system, our location in the solar system and the composition of DNA, the molecule of life. It consisted of 1,679 binary bits representing ones and zeroes and was our first deliberate communication sent to extraterrestrials. Today the missive is 42 light years away, just barely out the door.

Galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the big bang, when the universe was only three percent of its current age. The galaxy is ablaze with bright, young, blue stars, but looks red in this image because its light has been stretched to longer spectral wavelengths by the expansion of the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Oesch, G. Brammer, P. van Dokkum, and G. Illingworth

Let’s end our time machine travels with the most distant object we’ve seen in the universe, a galaxy named GN-z11 in Ursa Major. We see it as it was just 400 million years after the Big Bang (13.4 billion years ago) which translates to a proper distance from Earth of 32 billion light years. The light astronomers captured on their digital sensors left the object before there was an Earth, a Solar System or even a Milky Way galaxy!

Thanks to light’s finite speed we can’t help but always see things as they were. You might wonder if there’s any way to see something right now without waiting for the light to get here? There’s just one way, and that’s to be light itself.

From the perspective of a photon or light particle, which travels at the speed of light, distance and time completely fall away. Everything happens instantaneously and travel time to anywhere, everywhere is zero seconds. In essence, the whole universe becomes a point. Crazy and paradoxical as this sounds, the theory of relativity allows it because an object traveling at the speed of light experiences infinite time dilation and infinite space contraction.

Just something to think about the next time you meet another’s eyes in conversation. Or look up at the stars.

How Far is a Light Year?

A light year is a standard of measurement used by astronomers to describe huge distances in the Universe. The nearest star is 4.22 light years away. The center of the Milky Way is about 26,000 light years away. But how far is 1 light year? A light year is the distance that light travels in a single year. And light travels fast.

1 lightyear is 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers.

Need some other measurements? A light year is 5,878,625,373,183.6 miles. And a light year is 63,241 astronomical units (1 astronomical unit, or AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun).

But a light year isn’t the largest measurement tool astronomers have. That’s a parsec. 1 parsec = 3.26156 light years.

We have written several articles about measuring distance for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the speed of light, and an article about a device that makes radio waves go faster than the speed of light.

If you’d like more information on light years, here’s an article about what a light year is and how it’s used, and here’s a cool video that shows you how far a light year is.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about different tools for measuring distance in the Universe. Listen here, Episode 10: Measuring Distance in the Universe.

How Long is a Light Year?

A light year is the distance light can travel in vacuum in one year’s time. This distance is equivalent to roughly 9,461,000,000,000 km or 5,878,000,000,000 miles. This is such a large distance. For comparison, consider the circumference of the Earth when measured at the equator: 40,075 km.

You can even throw in the center to center distance between the Earth and the Moon, 384,403 km, and that value would still pale in comparison to 1 light year. Pluto, at its farthest orbit distance from the Sun, is only about 7,400,000,000 km from the center of our Solar System.

Because of its great scale, the light year is one of the units of distance used for astronomical objects. For example, Andromeda Galaxy, which is the nearest spiral galaxy from the Milky Way, is approximately 2.5 million light years away. Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system from our own Solar System is only 4.37 light years away.

Imagine using miles or kilometers when describing the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy, some 100,000 light years. Expressed in km or mi in expanded notation, that could occupy a lot of space on this page. Just look at the first paragraph, wherein we described 1 light year, to see what I mean. Of course, one may argue that we can still use scientific notation. But well, some people easily get daunted by the mere sight of exponents.

Although the light year has a more familiar ring to us, having perhaps heard about it quite often in sci-fi films or in magazines, it is not the most widely used unit of distance in astrometry, the branch of astronomy that deals with measurements and positions of celestial bodies. That assignment is given to the parsec. 1 parsec is approximately equal to 3.26 light years.

Another commonly used unit of distance is the astronomical unit or AU, wherein 1 AU is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, and is roughly equivalent to 150,000,000 km. It is normally used when describing distances within the Milky Way.

Always remember that the ‘year’ we have been referring to here is not based in the internationally-accepted Gregorian Calendar. Instead, ‘year’ here refers to the Julian year. 1 Julian year is equivalent to 365.25 days or 31,557,600 seconds. The Julian calendar does not designate dates, hence is different from the Gregorian Calendar.

We have some related articles here in Universe Today. Here are the links:

Here are the links of two more articles from NASA:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:

Source: NASA