Last modified on 19 August 2014, at 01:36

General Astronomy/The Big Picture

General Astronomy
The Big Picture Short History of the Universe


The universe is a big place — too big for us to comprehend. But how big? Astronomers have struggled with this question for millennia, and their view of the known universe has steadily grown to immense and incomprehensible sizes. It’s an important question, and a basic part of our grasp of the universe itself. To study astronomy, it’s essential to understand what’s out there, how everything relates, and where we fit in the universe. The problem is that the size scales, the relative general sizes of classes of objects, are too foreign for things much larger than Earth. In a big universe, this can be a challenge. To tackle the problem, let's try to connect the familiar life-size world around us with the unfamiliar cosmic size scales.

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If you're a student, you probably watch your instructor write on the chalkboard almost every day. The chalkboard is something you're much more familiar with than the whole universe because you can see it and touch it. You know the size of the board, the chalk, the markings, the eraser, and so on because they’re right at hand. How much bigger is the board than a dot made on the board with a piece of chalk? It turns out that the answer is about a thousand, for an average sized chalkboard, and a fair sized chalk dot.

Now let's consider something that's a thousand times the size of a blackboard. A blackboard is a few meters across, so we want to think about something a few kilometers across. That's something like the size of a small city. If a city is 1000 times larger than a chalkboard and a chalkboard is 1000 times larger than the mark on a chalkboard, that's a useful connection that helps us think about the size of a city: we can say that the chalkboard in the city is like the mark on the chalkboard.

In this way we will now step out from the city into the larger universe. With each step, we will consider something (very roughly) a thousand times larger than the last step. As we move out, each stop in our journey will be much smaller than the next, like a mark on a chalkboard.


A city is much larger than the blackboard we used as a reference point, but it's still something we are very familiar with. Many people drive across part of their home city and back again every day. It's possible to drive through most small cities in a half hour or so, even with stoplights, and it only takes a few hours to walk from one end to the other. As promised, the next step out will be much larger and farther from our everyday experience. Our next stop will have a size of several thousand kilometers, and that's the size of Earth.

In a car, you can drive across a city in less than an hour, even at a slow speed. If you could drive around the Earth at a speed of 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour), going day and night over land and water, it would take a full 17 days. Remember, driving through a small city at 60 miles per hour would only take a few minutes. Seventeen days is much, much longer than a few minutes. The fastest jets, which have a top speed of about 2,000 miles per hour, (3,500 kilometers per hour,) can make the trip around the world much faster. At that speed, you could circle the Earth in 11 hours. Even speeds like that will quickly become inadequate as we continue moving out into the universe.

The size of Earth is typical of the sizes of the rocky planets, the terrestrial planets, but planets made mostly of gas such as Jupiter and Saturn are larger by a factor of several to ten. In general, we can expect the same kinds of things to have similar properties. Given no other information about a planet, we might guess its radius to be the same as Earth's. If we knew that our imaginary planet were a much larger gas giant, we might change our estimate and guess that the planet has the same radius as, say, Saturn.

This size scale represents the vast majority of human experience. Only a small number of people have ever been in Earth orbit, and these people remained very close to Earth. Most of the satellites launched remain very close to Earth. The shuttle, for example, orbits at an altitude of only a few hundred kilometers — a few percent of the radius of Earth. Some spacecraft are sent to other planets or to the Moon, but the majority stays at the scale of this step in our journey. Only 24 people — the Apollo astronauts — have ever left Earth's orbit to visit the next stop on our journey.

This illustration shows the Earth and the Moon scaled to their relative sizes and distances. The two are very small and far apart, and the Earth-Moon system is surrounded by huge expanse of empty space. This view is only a small piece of the fifth step in our journey, and Earth is already becoming very tiny.

As we continue to move out, we reach a size of about 1000 times the size of the Earth. The distance to the Moon is about 30 times the diameter of Earth, so the Moon is easily within reach in this step, but there's little else in the remaining distance. The nearest planets, Mars and Venus, are out of our reach. Aside from the Earth and Moon, we find the space in the neighborhood Earth to be almost completely empty, with only the occasional passage of an asteroid or comet

Although the Moon seems nearby when we consider the huge space surrounding the Earth-Moon system, we should remember that the Earth and Moon are really very far apart. If we could get in a car and drive to the Moon, the trip would take five months of driving nonstop, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. If our jet could go to the Moon, it would take five days to get there. These trips are becoming longer now, but they're still manageable. The trip by foot is much longer, though — a walk to the Moon would take nine years! Light travels faster than anything else in the universe. It has a speed of 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second. At this speed, light can travel to the Moon in just over one second. This distance, the distance light travels in one second, is called a light-second.

This mosaic image of the Sun and six planets was taken by the Voyager spacecraft from beyond the planets. Earth is barely visible as a blue dot in one of the frames, almost lost in the glare from sunlight. The Voyager spacecraft, which view the orbits of the planets from outside, are the most distant man-made objects from Earth. Notice that the two terrestrial planets, Venus and Earth, are much nearer the Sun than the others.

Another step out will give us reach to most of the planets. We now encompass the bulk of the Solar System, the system comprising the Sun and all of the objects orbiting around it. This size scale is about five billion kilometers across, 30 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The distance from the Earth to the Sun is a convenient standard for measurement in the Solar System, so astronomers use the average Earth-Sun distance as a standard unit called the astronomical unit (AU). One astronomical unit is equal to about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. We can say that we are now working at a size scale of 30 astronomical units, or 30 AU for short. A box this size centered on the Earth will comfortably fit Saturn's orbit, but Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are still too far away. For much of human history, none of the Solar System objects outside of this box were known to exist.

Remember that our size scale has increased from the last step by a huge factor, a factor of 1000. Using our jet to take a trip from Earth to Saturn would take about fifty years. Light takes about 80 minutes to travel from Saturn to Earth, depending on where Earth and Saturn are in their orbits. Because it takes so long for light to make the trip from Saturn, the light we see from the planet at a given moment actually left 80 minutes ago. This means that we don't see Saturn as it is presently, but as it was 80 minutes ago. This means that looking out into space is like looking back in time. The farther we look, the older the light. This is not very important for Saturn, but it will become more important as the size scales increase.

As before, we can use the speed of light as a measure of distance. A light-second is the distance light travels in one second. Likewise, a light-minute is the distance light travels in one minute. That means that Saturn is 80 light-minutes away. In the same way, we could write that Saturn is 1.3 light-hours away, and that's about the same as the Saturn's distance from the Sun. Saturn's orbit is much bigger than Earth's orbit, which is only 8 light-minutes in radius. This is a striking and important fact about the Solar System — the rocky planets, the terrestrial planets, orbit close to the Sun and close to each other, but the giant gas planets, the Jovian planets, orbit at greater distances and have more widely spaced orbits.

The next step in our journey will encompass a distance of 30,000 AU, or half a light-year. Although this step completely encloses the planets, Solar System objects are found at much greater distances. These objects form the Oort cloud, a vast, sparse region of comets surrounding the Sun. The Oort cloud is almost empty, but it's there just the same. At this step we've only covered a piece of the range of influence of the Sun, and plenty of Oort cloud remains out of our reach. The Oort cloud is thought to extend out from the Sun as much as two light-years.

If we look just beyond this step, we find the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, at about four light-years. It will take Voyager 1 and 2 80,000 years to reach this star. (These ships, launched in 1977, have a speed of 51,500 km/hour.) As other stars enter into the picture, the Sun will no longer be the dominant source of gravity. This means that we can expect the solar system to really end as we begin approaching other stars.

Our next step out places us in a 500 light-year box. This size scale is easily large enough to fit the Sun, Alpha Centauri, and many other stars. In fact, about 250,000 stars are within 500 light-years of Earth. Astronomers refer to this region as the Solar Neighborhood. As we've seen, the stars in the Milky Way are very far apart, with vast stretches of mostly empty space separating them.

Stars in the Solar Neighborhood (and throughout space) are mostly small and faint. If these fainter stars were much farther away, they would be too faint to see from Earth. Much brighter stars are more rare, but they can be seen from much farther away. Because of this, two "kinds" of stars fill the sky from Earth: stars that are intrinsically faint but nearby, and stars that are bright and more distant.

This painting illustrates how the Milky Way might look if it could be viewed from outside. The Milky Way has a bright central bar with four spiral arms coming out from the center. Individual stars are much too small and faint to see in this picture.

As we continue outward in our journey, we see the random scattering of stars form into a pattern. Spiral structure emerges, and we see that the Earth, the Solar System, and nearby stars are collected together into an orderly system of stars called a galaxy. Our galaxy is called the Milky Way Galaxy.

Like the Solar System, the Galaxy is shaped like a flat disk, but the Galaxy is much bigger. Our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars, and the Solar System is only one member contained inside. The Sun is located in the spiral arms of the galaxy about two thirds of the way from the center, and it orbits around the center of the galaxy with all of the other stars. If the Milky Way were fifty miles long, the Solar System would only be a dot the size of the tip of a ball point pen. In actuality, the Galaxy is 100,000 light-years across, but only a few thousand light-years thick.

As we start out towards the next step, we see other galaxies like the Milky Way begin to appear. Compared to stars in the Milky Way, galaxies are packed together much more closely, and collisions between galaxies are much more common. The Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way, is 2.5 million light-years away and on a collision course for Earth. Don't panic, though, as the collision won't happen for another 3 billion years.

At a size scale not much larger than our last, we see that the galaxies are clumped together. These galaxy clusters typically have hundreds of galaxies and are millions of light years across. Galaxies orbit around the center of their clusters. The Milky Way is a member of the Virgo Cluster. It orbits near the edge of the Cluster, so we can see much of its center in a small region of the sky in the direction of the constellation Virgo. Presently, the Milky Way is moving away from the center of Virgo Cluster. In the distant future, however, the Cluster's pull will slow the Milky Way and draw it inward.

Although our reach now includes many more objects, the size scale of galaxy clusters still does not represent an expansion over the last size scale by a factor of 1000. We have not fully reached the next step in our journey until we come to the scale of hundreds of millions of light years. At this scale, even the galaxy clusters form clusters. These groups of galaxy clusters are called superclusters. A supercluster may contain hundreds of thousands of galaxies. The Virgo Cluster is a member of a supercluster called the Virgo Supercluster.

Light from the edge of our 500 million light-year reach has traveled for 500 million years before reaching us. This means that we see the Virgo Supercluster as it was 500 million years ago. Five hundred million years can be a long time, but it isn't really long enough for the universe to have changed significantly. Even though the light is old, the universe at the edge of the Virgo Supercluster still looks much like the universe nearby.

This artist's conception shows a schematic of the Hubble volume as if you could look "down" on it from "above". In reality, this view is impossible because an observer will always see the Hubble sphere as if from the center, regardless of location in the universe. This happens because the edge of the Hubble sphere is made by light emitted from a great distance when the universe was very young. The Virgo Supercluster is the small dot at the center of the image, circled in blue.

As we continue out from the 500 million light-year size scale, we see older and older parts of the universe. As the distance becomes very large, we begin seeing billions of years into the past, and big changes in the Universe as a whole become important. Going further and further back, we see the formation of the first galaxy clusters, galaxies, and stars. Eventually, we see the universe so young that no stars have formed yet. Before the first stars formed, the Universe was cool and dense enough for the loose, unused gas in space to block visible light. Beyond this, we can't see any further. The contents inside this wall are called the Hubble volume, or the Observable Universe. There's no way to observe objects outside of this volume because the light from these distant objects hasn't reached us yet.

The Universe extends out infinitely, but our view is limited to the Hubble volume. Trying to visit the edge of the Hubble volume is impossible. You'll never reach it because it's only an illusion. If you tried to visit the location where we see the edge of the Hubble volume, you would see the universe around you as it today, not billions of years ago, and you would see the edge of the Hubble volume all around you, billions of light years away.

Extending out further inevitably delves into the pages of theory and crosses the line dividing what we have seen and what we cannot see. Some have theorised that the universe itself does not comprise all of existence, and that there may be other universes with different physical laws existing together in clusters and groups in a multiverse.

As we go further and further out, many note that there must be an edge, an end, a border of reality. Others have speculated that the universe, or the multiverse it sits in, is simply infinite, and has no such boundaries. However, at this point in time, there can be no absolution, no definite answer to these questions.

Much remains unknown about what the Universe is like, but our picture has evolved dramatically since humanity first began asking questions about the world around it. Armed with curiosity and the tools of science, astronomers have investigated the heavens for centuries, and their work continues today.

General Astronomy
Table of Contents The Big Picture Short History of the Universe