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How Much Stuff Is In A Light Year? [Science]
posted February 7 2014 4:37.00 by spic0m

Even though the name is a little confusing, you probably already know that a light year is the distance that light travels in a full year. At speeds of almost 300,000 kilometers per second that gets you pretty far from home.

So take that distance and turn it into a cube, each side one light year in length. Imagine that giant volume of space, a little challenging for some of us to get our heads around. How much "stuff" would be in there, and not just "stuff"... how much nothing is in there? There is an answer, but it all depends on where put your giant cube.

Measure it at the core of the galaxy, and there are stars buzzing around all over the place. Perhaps in the heart of a globular cluster? In a star forming nebula? Or maybe out in the suburbs of the Milky Way? There's also great voids that exist between galaxies, where there's almost nothing.

There's no getting around the math in this one. First, let's figure out an average density for the Milky Way and then go from there. Its about 100,000 light-years across and 1000 light-years thick. According to my buddy Phil Plait, the total volume of the Milky Way is about 8 trillion cubic light-years. And the total mass of the Milky Way is 6 x 10 to the power of 42 kilograms.

Divide those together and you get 8 x 10 to the power of 29 kilograms per light year. That's an 8 followed by 29 zeros. Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.

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