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What Is A Light Year?

An explanation of the term light year

The term light year is confusing for many people because it actually measures distance instead of time.

Simply put, one light year is the distance that light can travel in one year. And since light travels at an amazing 186,000 miles per second, a light year is an extremely long distance - 5,865,696,000,000 miles to be exact!

We typically use the term "light years" to describe the distance between stars, galaxies, and other objects that are humongous distances apart. For example, the closest star to the earth, not counting our own sun, is Alpha Centauri. This star, our solar system's closest stellar neighbor is 4.3 light years away from the earth!

Think about that for a moment... The closest star to the earth (besides the sun) is 23,462,784,000,000 miles away from us! And other, more distant stars are millions of light years away from us!

Diagram representing one light year
This is why the size of the universe simply cannot be conceptualized in the human mind. We're used to dealing with distances on earth measured in inches, feet, and miles. We simply do not have the capacity to understand exactly how much distance is really involved when we talk about light years!

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