The Vastness of the Known Universe

Or How to Feel Very, Very Small

I was amusing myself with an astronomy app a few nights ago. It was cold, overcast and generally miserable outside, but I was thinking about the stars, and so I loaded up Star Walk by Vito Technology Inc. It’s a beautiful application for IOS with an incredible amount of information on planets, stars, constellations, and some less heavenly objects (more than 3000 satellites are currently shooting around in earth orbit). I was so excited about outer space that I ended up spending $2.99 for the updated Star Walk 2 app, and I paid another $2.99 to unlock all of the in-app content. While I’m generally a cheap skate, these purchases were well worth it.

I was clicking on stars, reading about constellations and various facts about galaxies, and I started to take note of the distances. In space, most distance is measured in terms of light years. For an object one light year away, if you were traveling at the speed of light, it would take one year to traverse that distance. Take a moment to think about how crazy this actually is. The fastest a human has ever traveled was 39,897 kph in space. The crew of NASA’s Apollo 10 moon mission reached that speed as they rocketed back to our planet on May 26, 1969. But light travels at a speed of 1 BILLION kph. Apollo 10 reached just .004% of the speed of light.

I started to think about how enormous this makes the universe. As I looked a more stars, I tried to find the ones farthest from the earth. I found one that was about 800 light years from Earth. Even if we could travel at the speed of light, it would take at least 11 generations before we reached this star. It is incredibly humbling to think about how incomprehensible  the universe is and how tiny and brief are our lives. As a biology major in college, I learned about species of life that have short lifespans, days, hours or even minutes long. But on a galactic or universal scale, human lives are a blink of the eye, a flash of light.

With these cheery thoughts in my head, I looked up the farthest known object we have discovered. In 2013, astronomers identified a galaxy 13 billion light years away. 13 frickin’ billion light years. It is a completely insane distance. It will make your head hurt to even think about it. Of course, the science in this area isn’t verifiable. Maybe the measurements are completely off. Maybe the universe is hiding something yet to be discovered that will change everything.  It’s incredible to contemplate.