Exploring the Scale of the Universe: Our place in time and space

Original blogpost by David Brin.

First, on the very near scale, this miracle year in space just keeps delivering, with amazing results from Mercury, Venus, Earth-climate sensing satellites, Mars, a Mars-grazing comet, landing on another comet, visiting Ceres, more news from Saturn and Titan, announcing plans for a Europa mission, deploying a solar sail, arriving at Pluto(!) and confirming hundreds of additional extrasolar planets.  Plus now…

The Planetary Resources Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft deployed successfully from the International Space Station’s (ISS) Kibo airlock and has begun its 90-day mission!  Asteroids hold so much more potential for human development – in the near futurre – than returning to the sterile desert of the Moon.

All right, it’s been the best year for exploratory space missions since 1972… (though let’s root for SpaceX to get smoothly across its current rough patch.) Teach this to your kids and neighbors! It’s a civilization that – if flawed – is reason for great pride. On the other hand, let’s not get carried away.  We’re just getting started and the universe is pretty darn big.

How big?

== There’s a whole lot of space in space! ==

How to envision the immensity of the universe? Almost beyond our comprehension… here is a list of just a few interactive sites that let you zoom or scroll through the vastness of the cosmos, scaling in from galaxies to planets to buildings to atoms and quarks — or to explore the realm of Time… from the Big Bang through the evolution of life on Earth and the history of humanity. Many of these are wonderful resources for teachers… and for those who want to expand their horizons…

Magnifying the Universe

1) Magnifying the Universe: I’ve always been a big fan of “powers of ten” style zoom-in and zoom-out graphics and films that bring home the incredible ranges of scale that we must deal with, in our puny, brittle minds.  Now see this supercool slide-able graphic that really brings it home. Dizzyingly fun: this interactive version of the universe (from Number Sleuth) takes you in scale from a hydrogen atom to a cell to a human to a star — then on to our galaxy, local superclusters and beyond. Explore!

The Scale of the Universe

2) The Scale of the Universe: This interactive site (from Cary Huang) expands in scale from the extremely small to the incredibly immense — starting with quantum foam (at the Planck length of 10 -35 m) to neutrinos, quarks, atoms, and cells all the way up to humans, buildings, planets, stars, galaxies and superclusters (on the gigaparsec level). You’ll encounter a wide range of lesser known units for measurement: yoctometer, heptameter, attometer, femtometer, picometer…

3) If the Moon Were Only One Pixel: This ginormously accurate scale model of our solar system (from Josh Worth) lets you scroll from the sun to Earth… and all the way out to Pluto (if you have the extraordinary patience to go that far). Read the comments along the way (Most of space is just space… and passing through the Asteroid Belt you will never actuallysee a single asteroid.) This truly lends some perspective on the vastness and emptiness of just our solar system… and perhaps our insignificance in the grand scale of things.

4) The Scale of Our Solar System: This infographic (from Space.com) lets you scroll out from the sun to the outer reaches of the solar system, past the Kuiper Belt to the Oort Cloud, marking off the astronomical units in terms of the distance travelled by light from the sun, from 1 to 14 hours. It also shows the relative distances traveled by the New Horizons, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes.

The Known Universe

5) The Known Universe: This gorgeous six minute film (from the American Museum of Natural History) zooms you from the Himalayan mountains, to the orb of planet Earth — through the outer reaches of our solar system to the spiral of the Milky Way galaxy to distant quasars in the depths of space… then reverses course to plunge back toward home.

Noteworthy.  If you visit and use ALL of these sites, some of these scale notions might sink in better than with just one. Check in and let us know the psychological effects!

6) How Big is Space? This interactive site from the BBC allows you to pilot your rocket ship up through the layers of the atmosphere through the planets, then out to the edge of the solar system, passing the New Horizons and Voyager probes along the way.

The Interactive Universe

7) The Interactive Universe: this site from the History Channel is less extensive than the others listed here, but it provides information as you click to zoom in on the sun, planets, asteroids, comets, nebulae, then on to the Andromeda Galaxy or black holes.

8) 100,000 Stars: an interactive 3D visualization (created for Google Chrome) of our stellar neighborhood, showing the location and identity of over 100,000 nearby stars. Zoom in to explore.

9) The original Powers of Ten clip: This 1977 film by Charles and Ray Eames begins at a lakeside picnic near Chicago. Starting at a scale of one meter, the film moves outward by a factor of ten every ten seconds, zooming out to Lake Michigan to the globe of the Earth, then on to the solar system, the galaxy, then out the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies… before diving back to our earthbound picnickers and closing in explore inside a single carbon atom. Narrated by the great Phil Morrison, of SETI fame.

And now on to Time…

10) Chronozoom: This visual timeline of the universe expands from the Big Bang to the birth of the Milky Way Galaxy to the formation of our planet, then on through Earth’s geological eras… to the prehistory of Earth, the evolution of life and the history of humanity. This open source project (designed at Microsoft Research and UC Berkeley, and developed at Moscow State University) also has links to a wealth ofteaching resources for the classroom.
Here Is Today website
11) Here is Today: By progressively clicking, this site (from Luke Twyman) takes you from “Here is Today” to the month, year, century, millennium, epoch, compressing the timeline to reach the geologic period, era, then eon of Earth’s history … and then expands to show the lifespan of the universe.
Evolution: What’s Next?

12) Evolution: What’s Next? This site (from John Kyrk and Uzay Sezen)) offers a slider to move through time: it shows the formation of various elements after the Big Bang, then moves through the accretion of the sun and planets… and on to the formation of the earth’s atmosphere and evolution of life.

Human Evolution Timeline

13) Human Evolution Timeline: this interactive (from the Smithsonian Institution) traverses the milestones in the evolution of humans  — through australopithecus, paranthropus, to homo erectus, charting climate fluctuations along the way.

A few more amazing sites well worth your time…
Historic Spacecraft website

14) Historic Spacecraft: a comprehensive exploration of space history, with photos, drawings, updates and background information (accumulated by Richard Kruse) — covering space probes, rockets, rovers, launch pads, space suits…plus timelines, size comparisons, cut-away views, history, quotes and more. Truly a wealth of information!

Atomic Rockets website
15) Atomic Rockets: “So You Wanna Build a Rocket?” is an incredibly detailed website devoted to rocket and spaceship design. The site (from Winchell Chung) offers equations, designs, illustrations, even parts lists, behind rocket drives, space stations, spaceships, spacesuits, weapons and so much more. It has entries on Space Law, world building — and more far-out speculation on aliens and space colonization. A wonderful resource for authors seeking scientific accuracy — and an aid to getting the science right in science fiction films or stories.

Science Fictional Spaceships by Dirk Loechel

16) Size comparison of Science fictional spaceships by Dirk Loechel — an epic-scale illustration that shows side-by-side images of spacecraft from Star Trek to Star Wars, Dr. Who to Stargate and Starship Troopers. Really fun to explore.

Though… ahem… you guys are missing some (* cough Streaker! *) classics that were included in a similar display at Seattle’s (alas defunct) Science Fiction Museum.

17) A 360 degree view of the flight deck of the Discovery space shuttle: A dizzyingly detailed virtual tour of Discovery’s deck during its last mission STS-133. Discovery is now at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC.

Mars Trek website

18) Mars Trek: Fly over the surface of Mars! Explore the planet in 3D with this NASA site: Click and zoom, pan in and out to view the detailed surface geology of the red planet. Almost like being there! You can also access and visualize scientific data sets by overlaying information from probes such as the Mars Rovers – Spirit, Opportunity, Sojourner, and Curiosity.

Earth Wind Map

19) Earth Wind Map shows up-to-date air and ocean currents across the globe — showing stunning atmospheric circulation patterns. Another site for visualizing wind forecasts isWindyty.  Or see the wind map of the U.S. — with surface wind data and circulation patterns, updated hourly. See also this collection of beautiful weather maps — providing essential data on our planet.

20) Space Engine is a free space simulation program that enables you to explore the universe, pilot a starship — and land on any planet, moon or asteroid. Or try Explore Mars Now, which allows you to explore a simulated Mars base, and walk through the habitats, laboratories, rovers and greenhouses necessary for a manned mission to Mars.

21) And finally… XKCD’s take on illustrating scale: the observable universe from top to bottom, showing height above earth’s surface on a logarithmic scale.

Left out?  The wonders of BIOLOGY!  Feel free to chime in with your favorite anatomical, functional, species and other depictions of that fascinating world.  We’ll give that run-down another time. (And of course you’ll see lots of political-social-economic maps, across the coming year!)

Explore…and be amazed!