02 December 2010

When You Wish Upon Some Stars

When you woke up this morning, did the universe seem a bit more crowded?  Well, you were right. 

A team of astronomers, led by Yale University's Pieter van Dokkum, has announced that the cosmos likely harbors up to three times more stars than previously assumed (it may be less).  Our stellar elbow room is getting squeezed. 

Illustration of planet near a red dwarf star
Why didn't we know this before?  Because the stars missed in earlier surveys are red dwarf stars, the tiniest and faintest of all stars.  The optical signature for these missing stars was discovered in several elliptical galaxies near the Milky Way galaxy.  According to the astronomers who made this discovery, elliptical galaxies, which resemble giant eggs, somehow house far more red dwarfs than spiral galaxies, such as the Milky Way.  And by assuming this new cache is true for all elliptical galaxies in the universe, that ups the total stellar population by quite a bit.

That's good news for Jiminy Cricket.  When he now wishes upon a star, he'll have a lot more to choose from.

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