It’s possible that most people on Earth have never seen the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. The Milky Way used to be a part of every human’s life experience, but now that the majority of mankind lives in cities, with their light pollution, the Milky Way is rarely seen.
Our Milky Way galaxy is at its best for the next couple of weeks, but most of you will need to make a special effort to see it. It will probably require a drive of an hour or more to reach a dark enough location, where the Milky Way will be visible. Then it will require another 20 minutes for your eyes to become adjusted to the dark.
What will you see? Not the brilliant array of stars you see in photographs made with long exposures. The real Milky Way looks like a faint band of moonlit cloud arcing across the sky. Your eyes cannot resolve it into individual stars.
No one knew it was made up of stars until Galileo first turned his telescope on it in 1609; this was one of his major discoveries. It wasn’t until a couple of centuries later that astronomers began to realize that this band of stars was in fact the local version of the “spiral nebulae” that astronomers were discovering all over the sky. [Our Milky Way Galaxy Explained (Infographic)]
The final clue to the puzzle was the realization that stars were all grouped into huge islands called galaxies, each containing many billions of stars. The Milky Way is our local galaxy.
Even today, beginners in astronomy often get confused by the two meanings of “Milky Way.” It can be used in its original sense to refer to the faint band of glow arching across the sky, or in its modern sense referring to the galaxy in which the sun resides.