The summer Milky Way is starting to climb into good view. It forms a hazy band that’s low across the eastern half of the sky in early evening right now, and arcs high overhead in the wee hours of the morning. It’ll climb higher each evening, though, becoming more prominent as it does so.
That glowing band of light is the combined glow of millions of stars of different colors. But the stars are all so far and faint that their light blurs into a hazy band that looks milky white — hence the name for the Milky Way.
And according to astronomers at the University of Pittsburgh, that’s a pretty accurate representation — the overall galaxy really is white.
We can’t see the overall galaxy because we’re inside it. And giant clouds of dust absorb much of the light of distant stars, making the galaxy look redder than it really is.
The Pitt astronomers looked at pictures of other galaxies that share some qualities with the Milky Way. The galaxies have about the same number of stars, for example, and they give birth to new stars at about the same rate. The galaxies that share these qualities all have a similar color: the color of fresh winter snow — the pure white of the Milky Way.
If you have a dark skywatching site, look for the Milky Way after evening twilight drains from the sky. It stretches from the bright orange star Antares in the southeast, to the Summer Triangle in the east and northeast, to W-shaped Cassiopeia in the north.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.