The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s what the sky might have looked like when the Milky Way was alive with star birth

This is an artist's view of night sky from a hypothetical planet within a young Milky Way-like galaxy 10 billion years ago, the sky ablaze with star birth. Pink clouds of gas harbor newborn stars, and bluish-white, young star clusters litter the landscape. Credit: NASA/ESA/Z. Levay (STScI)

Think our night sky is beautiful? Well, yeah, sure. But it would have been even more gorgeous if our sun wasn't one of the Milky Way's youngest.

[Do stars have a sound? A new study says they might.]

According to a new census by NASA (where scientists studied as many distant, and therefore ancient, similar galaxies as they could find) published Thursday in The Astrophysical Journal, our galaxy was in the throes of a serious baby boom 10 billion years ago. By the time our sun was born 5 billion years back, the party had slowed way down. They suspect this because the nearly 2,000 images they studied of other galaxies like the Milky Way revealed that most of their star formation happened during their first 5 billion years.

The artist's rendering above imagines what the evening sky would have looked like on an Earth-like planet. Between the pink-tinted gas clouds cradling cosmic newborns and the bright blue brilliance of the new stars themselves, a clear night would have been a pretty marvelous sight.

[Breathtaking new image captures birth of countless stars]

But it's possible that there couldn't have been an Earth-like planet born so early in the game. By the time our sun formed, heavy elements -- the building blocks of life -- had become more common than in the early days. Without those elements flourishing abundantly in our star system, we might not exist to look up at the sky at all.

Want more science? Give these a click: 

This tiny animal can survive basically anything, including the vacuum of space

For the first time, scientists find complex organic molecules in an infant star system

New clues on the perplexing origin of the moon

Astronomers spot the birth of ‘Sparky,’ a massive star factory