Space Exploration 101: the Scale of the Universe

By: Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator, Community Development & STEM, Pickaway County

Click here to access the Scale of the Universe overview lesson taught in Virtual STEM Club this month!

We started with the basics. The atom is the smallest observable thing in the universe. We reviewed that atoms are comprised of smaller components called protons, neutrons, and electrons. These components were thought to be the fundamental building blocks of the universe until we discovered that even protons and neutrons have smaller components inside called quarks. A quark is a type of elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. (1) Watch the video below, an elementary student explains the breakdown from matter, atom, to a quark:


Stars Remind Us the Past is Real and Ever Expanding

The night sky has always fascinated humans beings and their desire to discover new things and find reasons for how things work and space exploration is no exception. Humans have created surreal technologies to observe space and its distant objects – such as the Hubble Telescope – which for the past 30-years has been orbiting Earth at 17,000 miles per hour and providing some amazing visual discoveries. The technology helps us to magnify tiny spectrums in space and allows us to view them with the naked eye. The space telescope is 43.5 feet long or about the size of a school bus and weighs as much as 3-African elephants or 24,500-lbs. From space, it provides resolution 10-times better than even the larger telescopes on Earth and can see a dime clearly from 86-miles away.

TOP LEFT: Hubble Telescope compared to a school bus. TOP RIGHT: location of the Lagoon Nebula, a giant interstellar cloud in the constellation Sagittarius. It is one of only two star-forming nebulae faintly visible to the eye from mid-norther latitudes. BOTTOM LEFT: new image of the Lagoon Nebula from the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. BOTTOM RIGHT: the zoomed-in image of the Lagoon Nebula from the Hubble Telescope. (2)

We live here on Earth, which is known as a perfect planet due to its size, placement in our solar system, and the natural resources available. The sun is the largest thing in our solar system, taking up 99.86% of our entire solar system’s mass. Another way of thinking about it is comparing the sun to the size of a basketball, then Earth would be the size of a sesame seed. Our solar system contains 8-planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Our solar system is located inside the Milky Way Galaxy, but there are billions of other galaxies. To put our galaxy’s size into perspective, imagine our sun to be a microscopic white blood cell, then the Milky Way would be the size of the United States.

Wrapping Your Mind Around the Size of the Universe Can Hurt Your Brain

Space is infinitely large. The furthest observable known universe is around 14-billion light-years away, which is around the time the big bang happened, meaning light has only had enough time to travel 12 billion light-years since the beginning of time. For most space objects, we use light-years to describe their distance. A light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth-year. One light-year is about 6-trillion miles in distance. Although we can only observe objects 12-billion light-years away, the estimated size of the total universe in a sphere shape is 92 billion light-years and constantly expanding outwards to this day! The video below does a great job trying to put the scale of the Universe into perspective:






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