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From the top down

October 15, 2008 on 1:54 pm | In Astronomy, cosmology |

What are the biggest things in the Universe all the way down to the smallest? Well, xkcd has some answers, but I thought I’d show you in pictures:

1. The Cosmic Microwave Background:

Size = the entire known Universe, about 47 billion light years. This leftover radiation from the big bang comes to us from everywhere in space, and has taken the entire age of the Universe to reach us. So this is the largest thing; a sphere the size of the observable Universe, 2.725 Kelvin everywhere, with slight variations (hot shown in red, cold shown in blue).

2. Galaxy Clusters and Superclusters:

Size = up to 250 million light-years. (The largest known one is the Sculptor Supercluster.) These are clusters of galaxies, often with hundreds or even thousands of individual galaxies, with masses often approaching 1016 solar masses.

3. Individual Galaxies:

Size = up to 6 million light-years across. (That distinction belongs to IC 1101, over 60 times larger than our Milky Way.) We have over 100 billion galaxies in our Universe. 100 years ago, we thought we might be the only one. How small must we seem now to those who lived so long ago?

4. Star Clusters:

Size = usually about 10-20 light years across. Some types are more impressive than others. The gorgeous image above (thanks SDSS), the open star cluster M34, contains about 100 stars, but globular clusters can contain as many as a few million stars, like Omega Centauri.

5. Planetary Nebulae:

Size = about 0.5 to 3 light years across. When huge stars die, they go Supernova, and blow off the outer layers of the star. The inner stuff collapses to form a neutron star or black hole, while the outer stuff expands in a great shock wave, emitting light for hundreds of thousands of years. Eventually, it cools down and is no longer visible; this allows it to recollapse and trigger new star formation, eventually becoming an open star cluster! (It’s the circle of life, but for stars.)

6. Solar Systems:

Size = about 10 billion kilometers (or about 0.001 light-years). This gets all the planets, planetesimals, and comet-like objects all the way out to (and including) the Kuiper belt. This appears to be true for other solar systems as well as our own.

7. Individual Stars:

Size = from 200,000 km to about 8 million km. These vary tremendously in brightness, and it takes an estimated 400 billion to make up our Milky Way galaxy. Keep in mind, these are only living stars that are burning nuclear fuel.

8. Gas Giant (Jovian) Planets:

Size = about 20,000 km to 140,000 km. These are large, typically diffuse balls of gas. Interestingly enough, Jupiter is about the largest gas giant possible; if you start getting more massive than Jupiter, your planet actually starts to shrink in size due to gravitational compression.

9. (tie) Rocky Planets / White Dwarfs

Size = about 3,000 km to 20,000 km. When stars like our Sun run completely out of fuel, the only way they have left of generating light and heat is by gravitational cooling. They shrink to the size of about Earth, and slowly shrink further, emitting light until they cool completely and have no more energy left. They will then become completely dark, and are known as black dwarfs.

10. Asteroids (includes minor planets):

Size = up to 1,000 km, but they can be much smaller. The largest known one is Ceres, but most of them are so small that their gravity isn’t strong enough to pull them into a sphere.

11. Neutron Stars:

Size = from about 3 km to 20 km. These things can be more massive than our own Sun, and yet the largest are about the size of the Washington, DC beltway. Note, from the image, that they can flare up in the X-ray part of the spectrum and emit huge bursts of light.

12. Comets, Meteoroids, Micrometeoroids, and Dust Grains:

Size = typically 1 km or smaller, although a few comet nuclei can be as large as about 40 km. These are tiny conglomerations of matter that simply never made it into larger things; they remain small, rocky (and possibly icy) objects to this day. Examples range from Saturn’s rings to comet trails that result in meteor showers. But even though individual objects can be as small as millimeters, there are things that are even smaller in space.

13. Black Holes:

Size = infinitesimal. That’s right, these things are singularities, as far as we know, with masses as large as over 10 billion Suns concentrated into a single point, smaller than a proton. We can often see huge jets of energy caused by the matter interacting with the highly curved spacetime around it, but they’re called black for a reason: because no light can escape them.

Yes, I think this is badass! Of course, there’s a lot more out there than just outer space, and so for your enjoyment, I am reproducing the xkcd comics linked to above, “height” and “depth”, which show a lot more than just astronomical objects. Enjoy!


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  1. STUNNING. I can’t wait to show my kids this. I have never seen this shown in visual scale that I could understand, and it just makes me realize how small we really are. And how big this universe really is!

    Comment by Dan — October 15, 2008 #

  2. Very nice images, cheers for the post! bookmarked.

    Comment by MarkeD — October 16, 2008 #

  3. Very evident, fan pictuters, great site, nice ideas.
    I express you the admiration!

    Comment by Universe Man — October 14, 2009 #

  4. Awesome explanation! Very cool ideas!
    Love the drawings. Thank you!
    Really makes you think how small we are and how beautiful life is!

    Comment by Anyuta — November 4, 2009 #

  5. these images and pictures are tremendously beatiful and excellent,thank you for your attempts,at the end,as an amateur,I request you to introduce more galaxy introducing websites whose have worlwide viewers.

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  6. Thank you for your pictures and your insights.

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