Eleven Images That Capture The Sheer Vastness Of Space

Did you know that you could fit all seven of the other planets in the solar system between Earth and the moon — with room to spare. Note that Saturn and Jupiter, are nine and 11 times as wide as Earth, respectively. It goes to show impressive our landing on the moon was.

Find other facts about how incredibly large and unfathomable space is here.

Hat tip to Vox.com.

The Profundity of Space Travel

I’m quite sure everyone imagines space travel to be an experience unlike anything imaginable. The impact it must have on one’s psyche and worldview (no pun intended) is incomparable to any other experience we can conceive of.

Imagine seeing everything we’ve ever known and experienced — the culmination of all histories, lives, and events — within a single frame of view. Imagine being so far away that you could put your hand up and see the Earth as smaller by comparison. It’s no wonder so many astronauts, from what I’ve seen, appear to be so philosophical and worldly.

There is a 20-minute video posted on Upworthy shows breathtaking images and videos of Earth from space, intersected with beautiful ruminations and narratives told by a variety of people, from astronauts and scientists to popular writers and academics. I highly recommend you watch it, as it’s worth every minute.

 

I hope to live to see the day when space travel is as easy as taking a plane. It’s hard to imagine what such a world would be like.

Image

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

An artist’s impression shows the disk of gas and cosmic dust around the young star HD 142527, as observed by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile. They have witnessed vast streams of gas flowing across the gap in the disc, the first time we’ve seen the stages of a star being born. Click the photo to learn more.

Amazing Pictures from Hubble Telescope

The following images are courtesy of National Geographicthough they represent just a handful of the gallery. Click the hyperlink to see the rest – it’s well worth it.

This 1995 portrait of the Cat’s-Eye Nebula in the Draco constellation is considered one of the most iconic photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Also known as NGC 6543, it is a classic planetary nebula that glows by the high-energy emissions thrown off by the star seen at the center of the gas cloud.
This false color image shows off the intricate bubbles and twisted features within the 0.2-light-year-wide expanding shell of gas blasted out by a dying sun 3,000 light-years away.

This craggy fantasy mountaintop enshrouded by wispy clouds looks like a bizarre landscape from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or a Dr. Seuss book, depending on your imagination. The NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, which is even more dramatic than fiction, captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks.
This turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch and deployment into an orbit around Earth.

Located 20,000 light-years away at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, this red star—complete with dusty cloak—caught the eye of Hubble in 2002 and again in 2005 in the above image, revealing dramatic changes in the illumination of the surrounding cloud.
V838 Monocerotis is a red supergiant star that mysteriously produces multiple flashes of light over time, illuminating different layers of the surrounding gas and dust. This phenomenon, known as a light echo, was first seen by Hubble and may represent a previously unknown, unstable phase in aging stars many times the mass of our sun.

A cosmic angel seems to spread its shimmering wings in a newly released Hubble Space Telescope picture of the star-forming region called Sh 2-106.
The cloud of dust and gas is being shaped by a young star called S106 IR. On the cusp of adulthood, the growing star is "rebelling" against its parent cloud, ejecting material at high speeds and creating glowing lobes of hot, turbulent hydrogen gas.

Considered the most detailed image ever taken of the famous Crab Nebula, this Hubble portrait shows off countless wispy, branchlike filaments of hydrogen gas throughout the supernova explosion remnant. The electric-blue coloring of the interior of the cloud is the naked core of the dead star at the heart of the Crab Nebula.
Ancient Chinese astronomers witnessed the supernova explosion that gave birth to the nebula in A.D. 1054; records indicate there was a new bright star visible in the sky for two weeks.

 

The Most Astounding Fact About the Universe

During an interview with TIME Magazine, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist and public advocate of science, was asked a good but rather loaded question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” Below is his answer, courtesy of Vimeo. The man certainly has a way with words.

I think it’s a fantastic response, and it shows why Tyson has become so successful in popularizing science for the masses (much the same way the great Carl Sagan did). He makes you appreciate the depth and scale of the universe around us, and how seeking to understand it all through a scientific approach only enhances it’s beauty. Most importantly, it gives lie to the widespread notion that the nonreligious, and those who hold to science and reason in place of faith, lack any sort of imagination or wonderment towards life.

A scientific and naturalistic view of the world needn’t be cold or emotionless – if anything, the more we come to accept the remarkable material mechanics that lead to our universe, the more we can marvel at it’s very existence, as well as our own. There is no less meaning in a natural, divine-less existence.

You can find similar reflections on this subject here. It’s pleasant to see that so many of us can still experience awe and joy in the absence of a transcendental, supernatural belief. To each their own, but I’ll never let anyone think that a lack of faith precludes me from experiencing an appreciation for life that is akin to spirituality.

Space Pictures of the Week

Brought to you by National Geographic, here is just a small but breathtaking sample of the expansive work of art we call the universe.

While I’m at it, here’s another image from Astronomy Pictures of the Day that I’ve selected as my favorite for this week (click it for a larger image).

The first identified compact galaxy group, Stephan’s Quintet is featured in this eye-catching image constructed with data drawn from the extensive Hubble Legacy Archive. About 300 million light-years away, only four of these five galaxies are actually locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters. The odd man out is easy to spot, though. The interacting galaxies, NGC 7319, 7318A, 7318B, and 7317 have an overall yellowish cast. They also tend to have distorted loops and tails, grown under the influence of disruptive gravitational tides. But the predominantly bluish galaxy, NGC 7320, is closer, just 40 million light-years distant, and isn’t part of the interacting group. Stephan’s Quintet lies within the boundaries of the high flying constellation Pegasus. At the estimated distance of the quartet of interacting galaxies, this field of view spans about 500,000 light-years. However, moving just beyond this field, above and to the left, astronomers can identify another galaxy, NGC 7320C, that is also 300 million light-years distant. Of course, including it would bring the interacting quartet back up to quintet status.

I hope I live to see the day that human beings can traverse through space with relative ease and accessibility.

The Birth of a Galaxy

The following video is a computer simulation that depicts the evolution of a galaxy. It’s based off our own Milky Way, and begins from the Big Bang to the the present, spanning a period of 13 billion of years (give or take a few billion, since we don’t know for sure). It comes from the science blog Starts with a Bang.

 

The video is credited to Fabio Governato et al, the  University of Washington, and NASA Advanced Supercomputing. The caption reads:

Mergers of galaxies are common in their evolution. This movie shows the evolution of a galaxy with similar mass to our own Milky Way, commencing shortly after the Big Bang. The simulation is in a fully cosmological setting, according to our knowledge of Big Bang cosmology. This particular galaxy has a rich merging history, including a major merger at redshift of ~1, i.e. at a time when the Universe was almost half its current age. A large disk reforms from gas left over after the merger, and from subsequent gaseous accretion.

On another note, the creator of Starts with a Bang, Ethan Siegel,  is using this video to bring attention to an interesting project, The Charity Engine; basically, you can contribute your computer’s time and processing power to help with scientific calculations like those involved in this simulation, while also giving to charities at the same time. It’s a worthy cause to look into, especially if you want more videos like this.

It’s amazing to imagine that this sort of thing is happening all over the universe, at this very moment. It’s on a scale of time, size, and power that is literally incomprehensible to our own minds and lifespans. It’s breathtaking how small we are in this universe.

Hat tip to Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution is True for raising this to my attention.

Origin of the Universe

Following my recent musings about the scale and nature of the universe, I’ve pondered an even more perplexing question: where did our universe even come from in the first place? How did it begin and develop, and why is it the way that it is?

One of the most difficult concepts for anyone – nonreligious or otherwise – to wrap their head around, is the notion that everything we know within this vast universe (including said universe itself) apparently came about for no reason and without any origin. While that’s putting it crudely, many average people find it hard to imagine anything having existed without the designs of an omnipotent entity, despite that raising  a similar issue as to where this entity itself came from.

In any case, I lack both the time and the expertise to adequately address this topic, so I’m leaving it to someone who’s more than qualified in the matter: prominent theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss. In the video below, he gives us a picture of what we know so far about our universe, where its heading (indeed, it is changing), and how it’s possible that all of it could have emerged from nothing, without a first cause. It’s kind of long, at around an hour, but it was a very illuminating discussion.

There’s clearly quite a lot about this universe we don’t know about – indeed, there’s much about the human body, Earth, and numerous other complex systems that we still have to learn and discover. But humans have come a very long way in understanding everything around  us, and there’s no telling what remarkable illuminations we’ll come across in the future. Even if we never find the answers, it doesn’t make the journey any less education, riveting, and beautiful. As Krauss states early on, it is the mysteries of reality – the not knowing – that makes science so exciting and worthwhile in its pursuit.

The Universe

The universe is on a scale that is literally incomprehensible to the human mind. We can convey it mathematically of course (which is itself a remarkable feat), but our imaginations can scarcely piece together just how big it is, and how much is contained within its seemingly infinite expanse. This chart, a bit difficult to navigate given its size (go figure), gives just an inkling of what I mean.

How does one visualize an area that is 10 billion light years in its dimension? Indeed, how does one even visualize a light year in the first place: the number itself is unreachable by normal cognition. Moreover, how do we envision the billions of planets, stars, and galaxies that compromise this universe when can’t grasp even a single example of these? The size of my city is huge enough, yet my state, country, continent, or planet are each well beyond my mental faculties.

This chart, which is itself to large to post here, greatly illustrates what I’m talking about. First you have planets, then solar systems, than a collection of millions if not billions of these solar systems as galaxies, than a collection of all these galaxies known as nebular – and so on and so forth, with one indescribably large unit of stuff comprising even more indescribably large units.

I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps our universe is itself a component of an even larger unit. Not only could we have multiple universes, but these can each be part of something else entirely. Given what we know about the structure of matter, is it really to unlikely to consider such a possibility? Consider the history of the human understanding of the world.

Early humans knew only of the immediate geographical area they lived in. Most people that have ever lived didn’t see much beyond their town or village, let alone know of the existence of other communities elsewhere around the world. Even the nomadic types could only see so much within their lifespan. As empires formed, the world as those societies knew it grew, though it often extended a little bit beyond the borders. It took generations of gradual technological innovation, exploration, and expansion to shrink our planet enough to even realize it existed.

Thereafter, we began to finally probe the distant “heavens,” only to realize with time that the confines of what constitutes physical reality was larger than we thought. We keep pushing the limits of what we once thought were our confines. Who’s to say we will not somehow manage to shrink the universe itself?

Going into the other direction, there are infinitesimally small objects that form everything around us: with regards to organisms, there are cells that in turn have organelles, which in turn have molecules, which in turn are comprised of atoms, which furthermore contain sub-atomic particles, and so on. No matter how you slice it, it seems everything is constituent of something, and many of these units are beyond our level of analysis, whether they’re too big or too small.

It wracks my brain trying to comprehend these things in the first place, let alone trying to articulate it in writing. My physical size and perceptual scope relative to the grand reality around me can be both awe-inspiring and nerve-racking. My body is compromised of trillions of smaller objects that all come together to form the fully functionally and living being that I am. This body is in turn part of a larger system, including billions of other organisms who share this planet, and billions of other planets – perhaps some with organisms of their own – that make up this universe.

It’s this sort of realization of our reality that makes existence itself almost magical.

Earth May Be Little Less Lonely

As astronomers continue to utilize better technology and improve their techniques, the number of known planets outside our solar system has grown exponentially. In the less than two decades since we discovered the first “exoplanet,” we’ve now confirmed up to 702, with over 1,000 additional candidates detected by NASA’s Kepler Telescope alone. As our ability to better find and identify planets improves, so too does our understanding about the universe – and whether it harbors life. As MSNBC reports:

The numbers by themselves are exciting, but the search for alien planets isn’t just about increasing the tally. Rather, it’s a quest to better understand the nature and diversity of alien worlds in our galaxy and beyond, researchers say.

And that diversity appears to be huge. Astronomers have found one planet as light and airy as styrofoam, for example, and another as dense as iron. They’ve discovered an alien world that orbits two suns, like Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine in the “Star Wars” films.

And, perhaps most intriguingly, they’ve confirmed a number of planets that appear to orbit in their stars’ habitable zone, that just-right range of distances where liquid water — and maybe life as we know it — could exist.

“There’s zero indication that the surprises are petering out,” astronomer Greg Laughlin, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, told SPACE.com recently. “Just looking at all the new discoveries on the preprint server [where many studies are posted before being published] is close to a full-time job.”

Indeed, just a few days after that article was written, the BBC published a piece about a recently developed ranking for determining which celestial bodies may be suitable for life.

In their paper, the authors propose two different indices: an Earth Similarity Index (ESI) and a Planetary Habitability Index (PHI).

“The first question is whether Earth-like conditions can be found on other worlds, since we know empirically that those conditions could harbour life,” said co-author Dr Dirk Schulze-Makuch from Washington State University, US.

“The second question is whether conditions exist on exoplanets that suggest the possibility of other forms of life, whether known to us or not.”

As the name suggests, the ESI rates planets and moons on how Earth-like they are, taking into account such factors as size, density and distance from the parent star.

The PHI looks at a different set of factors, such as whether the world has a rocky or frozen surface, whether it has an atmosphere or a magnetic field.

It also considers the energy available to any organisms, either through light from a parent star or via a process called tidal flexing, in which gravitational interactions with another object can heat a planet or moon internally.

And finally, the PHI takes into account chemistry – such as whether organic compounds are present – and whether liquid solvents might be available for vital chemical reactions.

It’s about time we’ve taken the search for potentially habitable or life-bearing planets seriously. It’s good to see that we’ve developed a relatively sophisticated way of measuring such things, especially in light of how remarkably fast we’ve progressed in both finding and studying planets outside our solar system. Neither the idea of extra-terrestrial life, or of human colonization of other worlds, are as science fiction as they once were.

We’re still a long way from either of these things being a reality (especially the later option). But then again, it was only 20 years ago that we knew for certain only one planet outside our solar system. Who knows what the future holds, especially as more countries – and even private institutions – begin to undertake their own projects and research. If all else remains the same, the pool of astronomic data will continue to grow.

Below are the ratings the international team established. Their results are pretty interesting, and this newly devised method will no doubt be tweaked, debated, and improved upon with time.

EARTH SIMILARITY INDEX

Gliese 581 system
  • Earth – 1.00
  • Gliese 581g – 0.89
  • Gliese 581d – 0.74
  • Gliese 581c – 0.70
  • Mars – 0.70
  • Mercury – 0.60
  • HD 69830 d – 0.60
  • 55 Cnc c – 0.56
  • Moon – 0.56
  • Gliese 581e – 0.53

PLANET HABITABILITY INDEX

Mars
  • Titan – 0.64
  • Mars – 0.59
  • Europa – 0.49
  • Gliese 581g – 0.45
  • Gliese 581d – 0.43
  • Gliese 581c – 0.41
  • Jupiter – 0.37
  • Saturn – 0.37
  • Venus – 0.37
  • Enceladus – 0.35

If anyone is interested in further research, check out the team’s original publication of this concept in the journal Astrobiology. At the rate things are going, I can’t wait to see what the future holds just a decade or two from now. While many think sort of search is a waste of time and resources – and if you’re one of them, feel free to share your point of view – I think this can be very fruitful, especially as our long-term prospects on this planet (while often exaggerate) are still a matter of concern.

Furthermore, why shouldn’t we have an interest in discovering new worlds, Earth-like or not? It seems to be a natural progression for our continued expansion further into space. The obvious start would be with worlds more likely to either resemble Earth, or harbor some potential for life and human habitation. Plus, our innate yearning for discovery – and the ever-present question of our place in the universe – are too powerful a draw.

Oh, and here’s a gorgeous image of a galaxy: