Astronomy EssentialsHuman World

How many stars can you see?

How many stars can you see: Dark night filled with stars and Milky Way, with glow on the distant horizon.
Sergio Garcia Rill wrote: “A West Texas sky from Mt. Locke in the Davis mountains near the McDonald Observatory … Even from this remote location, you can see the light coming from Fort Davis on the bottom of the image.” How many stars can you see? Have fun trying to count them!

How many stars can you see?

What if you were far away from city lights, on a night with no moon and no clouds or haze. How many stars could you see with your unaided eye?

There’s really no definitive answer to this question. No one has counted all the stars in the night sky, and astronomers use different numbers as theoretical estimates.

Considering all the stars visible in all directions around Earth, the upper end on the estimates seems to be about 10,000 visible stars. Other estimates place the number of stars visible to the eye alone – surrounding the entire Earth – at more like 5,000. At any given time, half of Earth is in daylight. So only half the estimated number – say, between 5,000 and 2,500 stars – would be visible from Earth’s night side.

Plus, another fraction of those visible stars would be lost in the haze all around your horizon. That could bring you down to around 2,000, the number commonly used for these estimates. Just know that it varies depending on a number of factors.

Fuzzy light band across starry sky with brightly-lit lighthouse tower in distance.
Chirag Upreti wrote on February 17, 2018: “Milky Way core, first light for 2018! A fortunate break in the weather coincided with a favorable moon phase today early morning. Impossible to resist, a buddy and I drove 3 hours to get to Montauk, the easternmost tip of New York State and the location of the Montauk Point Lighthouse. The night sky here is rated a Bortle scale 4 (rural dark sky).”

Factors that affect your seeing

Why can’t astronomers agree on the number of visible stars? It’s because we don’t all see the sky in the same way. Even under ideal conditions, there’s a fair amount of variation between how well people can see the stars, depending on things like the strength of your vision and your age. As you get older, for example, your eyes become much less sensitive to faint light. Remember, too, that it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the darkness.

You also have to take into account the brightness of your night sky. Even on a moonless night, the glow of lights from Earth’s surface brightens the sky.

Still, far from city lights – under absolutely perfect conditions of darkness and sky clarity – a young to middle-aged person with normal vision should be able to see thousands of stars.

Densely star-packed area with the fuzzy band of the Milky Way crossing it.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Chuck Reinhart in Vincennes, Indiana, captured this photo of the Milky Way on September 1, 2021. He wrote: “We had an unusually clear night, and it gave me a chance to photograph the Milky Way in the south.” Thank you, Chuck!

Bottom line: Have you ever wondered how many stars are visible on a given night? It all depends on how dark your sky is, what your age is, and other limiting factors.

Visit the International Dark-Sky Association

What Major World Cities Look Like at Night, Minus the Light Pollution

September 28, 2021
Astronomy Essentials

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