A mission from NASA has discovered that there may be far fewer galaxies than originally thought, opening up the possibility that humanity is alone in the universe.
The New Horizons mission, which provided the first close-ups of Pluto, provided sufficient data for scientists to decide that it is likely the number of galaxies in the hundreds of billions rather than 2 trillion, as originally assumed.
“That’s an important number to know – how many galaxies are there?” The study’s lead author, Marc Postman, said in a statement. “We simply do not see the light from 2 trillion galaxies.”
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The results, which were published and can be read here, are in sharp contrast to the figure of 2 trillion that had long been used thanks to data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists used a mathematical model to determine that 90% of the galaxies in the universe were beyond Hubble’s ability to see “visible light”.
Traveling at approximately 33,000 miles per hour, the $ 720 million New Horizons spacecraft launched in January 2006 eventually reaches interstellar space, just like the Voyager probes before it. The fact that it is currently close to the edge of the solar system makes it possible to see the surrounding sky 10 times darker than Hubble’s vantage point.
“This kind of measurement is extremely difficult. Many people have been trying to do this for a long time,” explained co-author of the study, Tod Lauer. “New Horizons provided us with a vantage point to measure the cosmic optical background better than anyone has been able to do.”
The New Horizons spacecraft is now 4.4 billion miles from Earth.
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“Take all the galaxies Hubble can see, twice as many, and that’s what we see – but nothing more,” Lauer added.
NASA’s James Webb telescope, which had its launch pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic, could help scientists learn more about the faint glow in the background of space and learn whether it’s dwarf galaxies or something else.
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The New Horizons spacecraft has made a number of discoveries in recent memory, including the object Arrokoth, formerly known as the Ultima Thule. In May 2019, New Horizons discovered water and organic molecules on Arrokoth, which is deep inside the so-called Kuiper Belt or Twilight Zone, far beyond Neptune’s orbit.