Astronomers have used powerful instruments on the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to detect the faint signature of red dwarfs in eight massive, relatively nearby galaxies called elliptical galaxies, which are located between about 50 million and 300 million light years away. They discovered that the red dwarfs, which are only between 10 and 20 percent as massive as the Sun, were much more bountiful than expected.
The team discovered that there are about 20 times more red dwarfs in elliptical galaxies than in the Milky Way.
The new estimate for the number of stars in the universe is 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. (300 sextillion)
“We usually assume other galaxies look like our own. But this suggests other conditions are possible in other galaxies,” Conroy said. “So this discovery could have a major impact on our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.”
For instance, Conroy said, galaxies might contain less dark matter—a mysterious substance that has mass but cannot be directly observed—than previous measurements of their masses might have indicated. Instead, the abundant red dwarfs could contribute more mass than realized.
In addition to boosting the total number of stars in the universe, the discovery also increases the number of planets orbiting those stars, which in turn elevates the number of planets that might harbor life, van Dokkum said. In fact, a recently discovered exoplanet that astronomers believe could potentially support life orbits a red dwarf star, called Gliese 581.
“There are possibly trillions of Earths orbiting these stars,” van Dokkum said, adding that the red dwarfs they discovered, which are typically more than 10 billion years old, have been around long enough for complex life to evolve. “It’s one reason why people are interested in this type of star.”