What exactly is the Milky Way?

On a clear, moonless night, far away from the lights of a city, the Milky Way is visible as that majestic, hazy swath of star light, that spans a large portion of the sky.

So much for a rather cursory description. That’s what it looks like. But, specifically, what constitutes the Milky Way?

The Milky Way is a collection of several hundred billion stars, one of which is our sun. It is our home galaxy.

When we view the Milky Way, we are looking at the galaxy “from the inside out”. The hazy appearance is due to the collective light from billions of stars, which are located near the galaxy’s center, some 30,000 light years from us.

Consider this analogy: suppose you could get inside a piece of glass. Suppose, there were grains of sand scattered throughout the inside of the glass. The sand grains represent stars. The view you would get from looking down the LENGTH of the pane (not out of the glass) approximates the view you get when viewing the Milky Way.

By the way, the Milky Way is but one of several hundred billion other galaxies in the visible universe. The nearest galaxy to us is Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away.