The universe we live in is a pretty remarkable place. And yet, we’ve only scratched its surface. From black holes thousands of times the mass of our Sun to galaxies crashing together in violent collisions, we live in an active and exciting universe. In this list, we’ve dug up plenty of the lesser-known facts and phenomena in the universe (strange things about the universe if you will). What unites them all is that they are generally unexpected or surprising. And most you’ve probably never even heard of. For instance, did you know it can take 100,000 Earth years for light to move from the core of the Sun to its surface? Or how about that it would take 74,000 Earth years to reach our next closest star? Or how about the possibility of an extraterrestrial radio transmission in 2012?
Whether you’re a space junkie or just a science fiction fan, there’s plenty on this list of strange things about the universe to capture your interest. From the temperature of the Sun to the origin of comets to the music soundtrack humanity sent out to the stars in case other lifeforms find our space probes, put on your spacesuit and blast into these 25 Strange Things About the Universe.
The Sun boils
With the right telescope, you can see the Sun boiling. Just as warm water rises in a cookpot, cools, and falls down the sides via the process of convection, the Sun transfers energy to its surface via millions of cells called granules which live for at most 20 minutes.
Albert Einstein reported on the existence of gravitational waves back in 1916, a century before their existence was confirmed. The science world was elated by their ultimate discovery in 2015, revealing that space-time could actually ripple just as the still water on a pond ripples when a stone is tossed into it.
Interplanetary Transport Network
Though it sounds like a science fiction writer’s creation, the Interplanetary Transport Network is one of the coolest facts about the universe on our list. Originally named the Interplanetary Superhighway, the ITN is a set of pathways through our Solar System based on the competing gravity of celestial bodies. Satellites and other spacecraft can use it to slowly move between objects while using very little energy.
Most of us were taught in science class that there are three type of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. But there’s a fourth: plasma. Made by heating a gas or applying a strong electromagnetic field to it, plasma is the most plentiful form of matter in the universe. It can be seen in neon signs and in this picture as the Space Shuttle Atlantis re-enters the atmosphere in 2012.
A unique phenomenon that can only be seen from space, airglow is the release of energy by atoms and molecules high up in the atmosphere. Releasing their energy after a day of excitation by the Sun, the molecules can produce visible light, such as the green given off by oxygen molecules.
One of the strange things which continues to baffle astronomers is dark matter: a “maybe it exists, maybe it doesn’t” hypothetical substance that makes up over 80% of matter in the universe. Scientists are currently smashing particles together in the Large Hadron Collider to understand more about it. (So far, the science world has broken dark matter up into different varieties such as light dark matter, cold dark matter, and warm dark matter.)
Light travels almost 6 trillion miles (that’s 6,000,000,000,000 or about 9.5 trillion kms) in one year. To compare, the light from our Sun reaches us in only 8.3 minutes.
The Sun self-regulates
The Sun is actually a self-regulating entity. When too many hydrogen atoms are colliding and fusion is happening at too high a rate, the core heats up and slightly expands onto the outer layers. The extra space created decreases the density of atoms and thus the collision/fusion rate. When this happens, the core cools and shrinks, carrying on its ever-present balancing act.
Infinitesimally small chances
The chance any hydrogen atom on the Sun will collide with another hydrogen atom and produce nuclear fusion is estimated at only one in every five billion years. Thankfully, there are plenty of hydrogen atoms in the Sun’s core to test those odds so we don’t need to worry about the Sun dimming out anytime soon.
The snowman craters
Three side-by-side craters on the asteroid Vesta – the second most massive body in the asteroid belt and one of the biggest contributors of meteorites which have landed on Earth – have been said to resemble a snowman on the rocky object.
The universe's time capsules
Planetesimals, such as the objects making up the Oort cloud, are solid objects that are likely the debris of planet formation. Though their exteriors are bombarded with solar radiation, thus changing their chemistry and structure, their insides are believed to contain pure material that, if captured and studied, will give scientists clues to the universe at the time of our Solar System’s formation.
Origin of comets
Most of the comets entering the inner Solar System likely come from the Oort Cloud: a collection of trillions of pieces of solid icy objects just outside our Solar System. Comets are assumed to be dislodged by the gravitational interaction of the Milky Way and passing stars, throwing the icy objects towards the inner Solar System.
The Golden Record
Both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes carry an audio-visual gold-plated record disk with them. Bearing photos of Earth, its lifeforms, and even a greeting from the U.S. President and Secretary-General of the U.N., the record was made in case any other intelligent life forms find the spacecrafts.
Sounds in space
Did you know the universe makes noises? In September 2013, NASA released audio recordings of plasma waves, the first sounds ever recorded in interstellar space.
Astronomers have termed a new region of space discovered by the Voyager 1 probe as cosmic purgatory. Just outside of the Solar System, this area sees the Solar System’s magnetic field double as it creates a barrier to interstellar space. Charged particles emitted from the Sun also slow their course and turn back inward.
Since the Earth revolves around the Sun at a rate faster than NASA’s Voyager 2 travels outward from the Earth, the distance between Earth and the probe decreases at certain times of year, such as springtime.
Inefficient solar furnaces
Despite being our primary source of energy, the Sun is – volume for volume speaking – grossly inefficient. To compare, an old light bulb gave off 100 watts of energy. The Sun? Only about 276.5 watts per cubic meter. That’s about as much as the metabolism of a lizard.
Temperature of the Sun
The hottest point on Earth was recorded in Iran’s Lut Desert, reaching a staggering 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71°C) in 2015. (Scientists haven’t even found bacteria able to survive in this desert.) In contrast, the Sun is 5,778 Kelvin, easier known as 9,941°F (5,505°C). And that’s just the surface temperature. The core of the Sun has a temperature averaging 15.7 million degrees Kelvin or 28.3 million degrees Fahrenheit (15.69 million°C).
Size of our Sun
To give some meaningless comparisons between our Sun and the Earth, the Sun has 333,000 times more mass and is 1,300,000 times more voluminous than our planet. Despite these facts, its average density is only about 26% of the Earth’s.
Time to reach our second nearest star
Though no mission has been planned to our second nearest star after the Sun, Proxima Centauri, if we were to send a spacecraft towards it, it would take about 74,000 Earth years to reach it. Sorry to all the futurists out there…doesn’t seem like this will happen in our lifetimes.
Distance traveled by our furthest space probe
The most distant space probe humanity has ever launched – Voyager 1 – just left the bounds of the Solar System in 2012. Despite having flown for nearly 40 years, the probe is only 18.53 light hours away from Earth as of April 2016. That’s only 1/500th of a light year. To travel one light year, Voyager 1 would have to sail among the stars for almost 20,000 years.
Though a light photon only takes 8.3 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, it can take 100,000 years to move from the Sun’s core to the surface. Why? Well, the Sun’s core is incredibly dense: 150 times more dense than water. Therefore, the gamma rays released from fusion can only travel a few millimeters before being absorbed by another atom and re-radiated in a constant chain on their way out of the core.
Nearest black holes to us
There are at least 16 (observed) stellar-mass black holes in the Milky Way which are closer to us than the galaxy’s center, Sagittarius A*. The closest, V616 Monocerotis, is about 3,000 light years away. Though black holes are known for sucking in all nearby matter, we don’t have to worry too much. Our closest star – the Sun – is about .0000158 light years away so the gravitational pull from 3,000 light years away isn’t something to be concerned about for now.
Supermassive black holes
The largest-known type of black hole, a supermassive black hole is so big it can have a mass many billions of times the mass of our Sun. Located at the center of nearly all massive galaxies, a supermassive black hole also exists in the center of our own Milky Way. It’s called Sagittarius A* and was discovered in 1974.
In April 2010, radio astronomers at the University of Manchester noticed an unknown object in the starburst galaxy Messier 82. The unknown object sent out radio waves which have never been observed in the known universe. Scientists still aren’t sure what it could be, though we’re sure extraterrestrial theorists have their own opinions.