How many stars can you see in the night sky?

The effects of light pollution (via Gizmodo)

The real answer to this question depends of course on where you are when you’re looking – and it can be quite depressing. But this is an “out of the mouths of babes”-type story.

Up to now I’ve focused on dealings with people I’ve had over the phone, whether on live radio, or in my office. This one comes from a primary school visit (that’s elementary school to North Americans) for the Transit of Venus in June this year.

I’m part of a great program called Scientists In Schools, which partners scientists with a teacher at either a primary or high school in Australia. For the transit I went out to speak to one of my partner schools, Toongabbie East Public School. It’s a small school in Sydney’s western suburbs – with only about 45 kids between kindergarten and year 6 – so the principal (who I’m partnered with) invited the other schools in the local area to come along. I gave a presentation about the history of the transit and it’s relevance to Australia, and then talked a little about other planets that transit stars. Mercury transits the Sun occasionally, and we now know about 2300 or more that transit other stars.

So I asked how many stars the kids could see in the night sky from their houses. The first answer was “a million!” – I wish that were the case! The next answer was “a thousand!”, and then “a hundred!”, which sadly in a city like Sydney is not that far from the correct number: it might be around 200-300 in Toongabbie.

I then asked how many stars they’d be able to see if they went out to the middle of Australia and let their eyes adjust to the dark for a few minutes. The first answer: “a million!”, and then “a hundred!”. The little girl who gave this answer was super keen, and was probably about 6 years old. I told her with a smile: “It’s slightly higher than that.” Her response: “a hundred and one!”. This is why I love speaking to kids. 🙂

(The correct answer is somewhere between about 5500 and 45000; it really depends on how dark your sky is, but there are very few places on Earth these days where it would close to the latter.)

About drsimmo

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
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15 Responses to How many stars can you see in the night sky?

  1. mindocr says:

    Reblogged this on Mindocr’s Weblog.

  2. nidhay says:

    today i saw hardly 2 stars in the night sky. i live in the city ahmedabad,india. i was shocked to spot only 2-3 stars in the sky though it was absolutely clear.light pollution really effects a lot !!!

    • Very sad, but it’s happening more and more unfortunately. In downtown Sydney, you could once see the five brightest stars of the Southern Cross (the ones that are on the Australian flag), but now the faintest – epsilon Crucis – is gone, and the next faintest – delta Crucis – is difficult a lot of the time. Otherwise, only the planets and the brightest stars in the sky can be seen readily.

      • nidhay says:

        hey, i am not able to find any of the planets. it’s true that the object which gives steady light is a planet, but every time when i see an object giving steady light, after sometimes it seems to ,like a star, and the star maps that i study only help in finding constellations.

  3. nidhay says:

    can u give me some tips for finding any of the planets? i searched on the internet but it did not give satisfaction.

  4. nidhay says:

    r u an astronomer? i am a school student studying in 8th grade. i am much interested in astronomy. can u tell me whether to purchase a telescope or a binoculars first?

    • Yes, I’m an astronomer! I think that a good pair of binoculars would be a good start, and also a bit more affordable. Binoculars are better than a telescope for the same price (A good telescope will cost $1000+, whereas a good pair of binoculars would cost a couple of hundred or so, at least in Australia). You can see a lot of interesting things on the Moon, and depending on magnification, can make out the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter in a dark place.

  5. nidhay says:

    have u ever seen the milky way with unaided eye? if yes, then how did it look? was it amazing?

    • Yes – from outside of Sydney you can see the Milky Way, as long as it dark and quite dry. Water vapour in the atmosphere (and clouds of course) can have an impact on how much you can distinguish. Away from the cities, you can see the band of the Milky Way as well as lanes of dust through it. Indigenous Australians called it “The Great Emu in the Sky” 🙂

  6. Pingback: How many stars can you see in the night sky? | How big is the world

  7. nidhay says:

    thanks 4 the advice. do they refer ‘THE GREAT EMU’ to as the large bird found in Australia.
    so, u r an astronomer. i guess the question “what was there before the big bang? what caused big bang?” must be troubling u a lot.
    i guess u would have surely got an opportunity to look through large telescope such as the one in Chile or Arizona. i wanted to ask that which subject is more necessary for astrophysics- maths or science? or are they equally important?
    i have never hoped 4 the chance to see the milky way in Ahmadabad or nearby places. here, it is never dark enough.

    when do we see more stars? in summer or in winter?

  8. Living in London (UK), I rarely see any stars in the night sky. I grew up in the countryside, where hundreds of stars could be seen. This is something all children should experience.

    Scientists in Schools looks like a great programme, I’d love to see something similar in the UK!

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