A long time ago in a galaxy …

We live in the Milky Way Galaxy, which according to the best estimates of astronomers, contains a hundred billion stars. Our galaxy is one of at least one hundred and twenty five billion galaxies in the universe.

You might have heard that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on a beach (the estimate for the number of stars in the universe is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, that’s 1 billion trillion stars). The truth is that there are ten times more stars in the universe than grains of sand on our whole planet.

We know that star is one of the oldest words in English and its origin goes back to the beginning of languages. Similar words exist in many of the ancient languages: Sanskrit star, Hittite shittar, Greek aster, and Latin stella. Star is thought to come from a word meaning to strew or to scatter which has a wonderful fairy dust sense about it (similarly galaxies were first identified as nebula from the Latin for mist, fog or vapour). But whatever its original meaning the existence of the word star from so long ago tells us that we have been staring up at them for as long as we have been speaking.

Identifying galaxies is only recent. It was Galileo in 1610 who decided that the Milky Way, the band of light across the night sky, was made up of a band of stars and Thomas Wright who postulated that we might be part of a galaxy. So, being the first, galaxy took its name from the Milky Way from the Greek phrase galaxias kyklos meaning milky circle, from gala for milk.