We live in an immense universe – a place so large that scale means virtually nothing. After all, what’s the different between six million light years and six billion light years? The distance and the absolute vastness of space is already so massive it’s difficult for us to fathom. Despite this seemingly unconquerable task, we’ve taken a crack at it, bringing you 25 pictures and associated facts about the immensity of space.
Though we Earthians think we’re pretty special, in galactic terms, we’re pretty insignificant, not even 1% of 1% of 1% of 1% of the universe. And that’s still an understatement. Here, we pair up pictures with facts of unfathomable proportions. For instance, did you know we can use interstellar matter as a magnifying glass to see much more distant parts of the universe? (The magnifying effect has thus far allowed us to see stars over 13 billion light years away.) Or how about there’s a quasar that shoots matter 5,900 quadrillion miles into the surrounding universe? (That’s 5,900,000,000,000,000,000 miles, if that puts it into any perspective.) Or how about that any one hydrogen atom on the sun is expected to collide with another one only once every five billion years? If any of these facts peaked your interest, you’ll love these 25 Pictures That Capture the Vastness of Space.
Infinitesimally small chances
The chances that a random hydrogen atom on the Sun will collide with another hydrogen atom and create nuclear fusion is estimated to happen only once in every five billion years. Since there are loads of hydrogen atoms in the Sun’s core, we don’t have to worry about the Sun going dark for at least a few billion years.
The lit-up Whirlpool Galaxy
This striking image of the Whirlpool Galaxy, about 30 million light years from Earth, shines with multiple points of vivid brightness likely caused by ravenous black holes.
The misplaced arms
The galaxy NGC 4258 is a typical spiral galaxy except for one major feature: two huge spiral arms full of gas which stretch out perpendicularly to its main arms.
One of the coolest things astronomers have learned to do is use interstellar matter – such as stars and dark matter with strong gravitational pulls – as a lens in space, magnifying the light of objects behind them. This image, magnified through the galaxy cluster Abell 1689, gives us a view of stars over 13 billion light years away.
When a black hole erupts (shoots out shock waves), it forcefully pushes gas outward and creates massive holes known as cavities in its surrounding galaxy, as seen here in NGC 5813.
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Our Milky Way
We can actually see our own galaxy from within it. This picture shows our massive Milky Way Galaxy with the planet Jupiter showing up as the bright ball in the center.
The Milky Way's arch
This picture of the Milky Way Galaxy taken from Chile shows just a handful of the stars visible in a clear night sky.
In this artist’s depiction, a spiral galaxy is experiencing massive starburst (or star creation). The winds made by star formation have been estimated to shoot out up to 650,000 light years.
The sparkling sky
Sometimes the cosmos looks more like an extravagant dress from the movie Hairspray than its true self as a collection of gas and dust, as here in this galactic cluster in the Small Magellanic Cloud.
Pillars of Creation
One of the most famous images taken of space, the Pillars of Creation are massive strands of hydrogen and dust being used for star formation.
Visible without binoculars on a clear night, the Orion Nebula is one of the most studied features in the cosmos, giving great detail into how stars and planets are formed. To find this cloud of dust and ionized gases, look just south of Orion’s belt.
If you enjoyed these space images and their depictions of the vastness of space, then be sure to check out these 25 Space Images That Will Blow Your Mind Away.
This quasar, known as SDSS J1106, is the most energetic ever found. The result of supermassive black holes at a galaxy’s center, quasars shoot matter out into the surrounding galaxy. This extremely bright one shoots material around 1,000 light years into the surrounding space.
This picture shows an artist’s depiction of plasma shooting out at high velocity from a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. The plasma jets are caused by the extraction of energy due to the black hole’s ravenous pull.
A tail of gas twice as wide as the Milky Way
The stream of hot gas in the galaxy cluster Zwicky 8338 looks like a tail. Though just a mass of gas (shown in the X-ray spectrum), this gas trail is twice as wide as our Milky Way Galaxy.
This massive galaxy cluster has a visible blue-white area of gas in its center which is sloshing around much in the same way water sloshes around in a moving bucket before settling. Very far from Earth – 10 billion light years to be quasi-exact – this galaxy cluster has a mass of nearly 500 trillion Suns.
The bright spot in the center of this image, Messier 60 is an elliptical galaxy with a black hole at its center. Its massive black hole weighs 4.5 billion times our own Sun’s mass, making it one of the most massive black holes ever seen.
A crowded interstellar neighborhood
With up to one trillion stars, the Milky Way is a pretty massive galaxy. This image shows but a few of the stars in our neighborhood.
The Pale Blue Dot
Can you see the pale blue dot in the center of the rightmost brown line? That’s our Earth, as seen from 4 billion miles away.
The lonely galaxy
Most people think of space as expansive and never-ending with objects located far, far away from each other. And while that’s mostly true, most interstellar matter is at least located near other interstellar matter. Except for galaxy NGC 6503. This lonely galaxy is found in a section of the universe which is devoid of stars and matter for 150 million light years across. The area has thus been named the Local Void and the galaxy has been nicknamed the Lost in Space Galaxy.
An exploding star
What looks like an aerial firework’s explosion is actually the explosion of star GK Persei.
Most comets entering the inner Solar System likely originate in the Oort Cloud: a collection of trillions of pieces of solid icy objects just beyond the boundary of our Solar System. The gravitational interaction of the Milky Way and passing stars is thought to dislodge comets, throwing the icy objects into the inner Solar System.
The Sun's relatively small energy output
The core of our Sun alone is 25 times bigger than Earth. And it burns at a temperature of around 29,000,000°F (16 million°C). Despite this size and temperature, it only puts out as much energy per cubic meter as a light bulb.
Our Sun, the factory
Every second, our Sun burns about 620 million tons of hydrogen. The result is 616 million tons of helium, three million tons of energy (heat, light, etc.), and one million tons of matter cast off as protons and electrons – immensely high-energy charged particles.
Supermassive black holes
Supermassive black holes are the largest-known type of black holes, so big their mass can be many billions of times the mass of our Sun. Found at the center of almost all massive galaxies, a supermassive black hole – Sagittarius A* – even exists in the center of our own Milky Way.
A black hole weighing up to 5,000 Suns
Despite the size of our Sun, even just an intermediate-mass black hole, such as the one at the center of galaxy Messier 82, is equal to 200-5000 times our own Sun’s mass.