Nothing can make you feel quite as small and insignificant as learning about the cosmos. At the same time, taking a moment to appreciate the vastness of the universe can make you feel that just by existing, you’re a part of something greater than yourself.
Learning about space is not only fascinating, but it can really put things into perspective. If you’re a lifelong space nerd or even if you just need a mental reset, take a few minutes to read these interesting facts about space and ruminate on the enigmatic nature of our world.
1. There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth.
It can be difficult to wrap our heads around just how mind-bogglingly vast the universe is. Comparisons to Earth can help us appreciate, if not fully visualize, the universe’s considerable size. In his 1980 bestselling book Cosmos, Carl Sagan famously claimed that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. More recently, a group of researchers at the University of Hawaii set out to confirm whether that is indeed the case.
Rather than send an unfortunate intern to the beach to count sand grains for the rest of their life, they simplified matters by calculating how many grains of sand are in a teaspoon, then multiplying that by the approximate volume of all the beaches and deserts in the world, arriving at 7.5 x 1018 grains of sand, or seven quintillion, five hundred quadrillion grains. Meanwhile, the number of stars in the observable universe is said to number 70 thousand million, million, million, according to a 2003 calculation.
Of course, it’s a very rough estimate, but using those unwieldy numbers, the researchers concluded that stars indeed outnumber sand grains. Consider that the average star is roughly the size of our sun, while a single sand grain is difficult to see with the naked eye, and you just might have an idea of the universe’s incredible size.
2. The oldest known star is around 14 billion years old.
HD 140283 is colloquially known as the Methuselah star. Nicknamed for a Biblical figure who was said to have died at the ripe old age of 969, Methuselah is the oldest star that has been observed to date. At 14.46 billion years old, it’s believed to have formed not long after the Big Bang. In fact, it contains very little iron, since iron was not commonplace in the universe at the time of this star’s birth.
But wait—you might be wondering, how can a star be older than the universe itself? The universe is currently estimated to be 13.8 billion years old. Scientists had the same question, calling the anomaly the “age paradox.”
After continuing to observe the speed at which Methuselah is traveling and fine-tune the calculations for its age, researchers determined that the star is indeed 14.46 billion years old—plus or minus 800 million years. That error margin does make the star’s age compatible with the age of the universe, but just barely. It’s possible that in the future, advances in the observation of stars as well as a better understanding of the effects of dark energy will further refine the ages of this star and the universe.
3. The sun is capable of causing trillions of dollars’ worth of damage to our infrastructure.
Predictions about apocalyptic conditions range from the fanciful (zombies) to that which hits a little too close to home (deadly global pandemic), but there’s another potential source of chaos that most people have never heard of. A catastrophic solar flare could drastically alter 21st-century life as we know it by incapacitating electrical grids, satellite communications, and the Internet.
Solar flares occur when the sun’s surface emits plasma, high-energy particles, and electromagnetic radiation. The phenomena was first observed in 1859, when astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a flash of light on the sun. Around 18 hours later, people all around the Western Hemisphere saw strange green lights in the sky. Telegraph systems shocked operators and caused fires, even when they were disconnected.
In what is now known as the Carrington Event, a powerful geomagnetic storm occurred here on Earth. During that storm, the initial solar flare observed by the astronomer was particularly destructive because it was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, a more powerful release of matter that is associated with disturbances in the magnetic field on the sun and here on Earth.
The Carrington Event is the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record. But in today’s increasingly technology-dependent world, another coronal mass ejection could damage our infrastructure by causing massive currents to flow even in electronic circuits that are disconnected. Airplanes could be bathed in radiation and satellites could fail, causing navigation systems to crash. Long-lasting power outages could affect millions of people, with radio waves interrupted as well.
As it stands, the best defense against a geomagnetic storm of that magnitude would be for power companies to cut off their electrical grids, disconnecting and grounding stations so that the extra-powerful current doesn't flow into nearby buildings. The process takes about a day to do safely.
Thus far, we’ve avoided a geomagnetic storm catastrophe through sheer luck. But as the technology to observe the sun’s surface advances, we’re coming closer to being able to predict such events far enough in advance to mitigate some of the potential damage.
4. Space and time work differently depending on whether you’re inside or outside a black hole.
In a black hole, gravity is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape its pull. The theory of general relativity predicts that the space-time continuum folds in on itself in a black hole, creating some pretty freaky circumstances that are not fully understood. We likely won’t for some time, given that not many people are going around and accidentally wandering into black holes, but BBC Earth proposed one fascinating and plausible theory.
Because of the twisting of space and time that occurs within a black hole, as well as the total breakdown of the laws of physics as we know them, someone who fell into one would have a very different experience than an observer. Basically, if Person A fell in, he would experience freefall, and actually not feel much of anything due to the lack of gravity. It might even be peaceful—sailing along until he eventually died in the far-off future.
However, if Person A had an astronaut friend who happened to watch him fall into a black hole, Person B’s experience would be more horrifying. She’d see her friend stretched out, motionless, as a growing heat engulfed Person A, until he turned to ash before her very eyes.
This apparent paradox has opened the door to the possibility of multiple realities. After all, the question of whether Person A is dead or alive depends on who you ask. Of course, this is all theoretical for now, but it's certainly a chilling thought…