spaceSpace and Physics

Unbelievable Facts About Our Universe

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Lisa Winter

Guest Author

2253 Unbelievable Facts About Our Universe
Galaxy Messier 106. Image credit: NASA/CXC/JPL-Caltech/STScI/NSF/NRAO/VLA

Exoplanet covered in burning ice

Gliese 436 b is a Neptune-sized exoplanet located about 33 light-years away in the constellation Leo. Astronomers believe that it embodies exotic states of water that causes its surface to be covered in burning ice. The pressure on the planet forces the ice to stay solid, but the extreme surface temperature of 570° F (300° C) superheats the water, causing it to come off as steam. 


Eau de Cosmos

Though it is impossible to smell space directly or through a spacesuit, astronauts report that upon returning from a spacewalk, their gear smells distinctively like seared steak, hot metal, and arc welding fumes. The source of this odor could be byproduct from dying stars, the traces of which can be found throughout the universe. 

Image credit: Jerry Attrick


Intergalactic kegger

About 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila, there is a cloud of alcohol with a diameter 1,000 times larger than our solar system. The amount of ethyl alcohol present in the cloud could serve up to 400 septillion (400, followed by 24 additional zeros) drinks. 


Closest neighbor

The Andromeda galaxy is our closest galactic neighbor, roughly 2.5 million light-years away. Though it is 140,000 light-years across, it isn’t bright enough to be seen in the night sky by our eyes. If it were brighter, it would appear six times larger than the full moon. 

Composite image credit: Tom Buckley-Houston, original (sans Andromeda) credit: Stephen Rahn

Earth under pressure

Black holes are formed when some very large stars collapse and condense all of their mass into a very small area, known as the Schwarzschild radius. Earth’s Schwarzschild radius is just below nine mm (1/3 inch), and if it were to be compressed below that size, our planet would become a black hole. For a person to become a black hole, they would have to be compressed smaller than a proton.


Stellar nursery

Though the birth and death of stars don't happen instantaneously, the process happens fairly frequently. By using observed star formation and supernova events within the Milky Way, astronomers have estimated that 275 million stars are born and die throughout the observable universe each day. This totals more than 100 billion over the course of a year.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team


Galactic year


It takes 24 hours for Earth to rotate on its axis to make a day, and 365 days to orbit around the sun for a year. It takes around 230 million years for our solar system to complete a single orbit around the Milky Way. The last time it was in its current position, the earliest dinosaurs had just appeared, and flowering plants wouldn’t evolve for another 100 million years.

Macerated Milky Way

Our solar system may smell like hot metal and seared steak, but what about the middle of the Milky Way? According to recent research from the Max Plank Institute, it smells like raspberries and tastes like rum. They found that ethyl formate, a key chemical component for both raspberries and rum, can be readily found at the center of our galaxy. Can’t choose between raspberries or rum? Why not just soak the berries in the rum and call it a party?

Image credit: Pukey Cow

Time flies


If you have ever wished there were more hours in the day, just be patient. Every century, Earth’s rotation slows down by about 1.4 milliseconds. When the dinosaurs were around, a day lasted about 23 hours. NASA reports that Earth’s rotation was exactly 24 hours in 1820, but is now off by 2.5 milliseconds.

Habitable zones

There are anywhere between 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way and an estimated 100 billion planets. Around one in five stars are like our sun, and astronomers have estimated that about 22% of them have planets the size of Earth in their habitable zone, where water can exist as a liquid. This means there could be 8.8 billion planets within the galaxy capable of supporting life (not accounting for composition of the planet or its atmosphere).

Image credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

White noise


When analog television sets aren’t tuned to a channel correctly, it results in static and white noise. Around 1% of that is radiation left over from the Big Bang, better known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This interference between overlapping signals actually allowed Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson to discover the CMB in 1965.

Quasar query

Quasars occur when gas swirls around a black hole very quickly, and friction causes it to heat up, emitting light. Astronomers have a discovered a group of 73 quasars that are over 6.5 times larger than the average quasar group. This structure is over four billion light-years wide, and actually cannot be explained by the Theory of General Relativity. Theoretically, it shouldn’t even exist.

Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Spin cycle


Pulsars are magnetized neutron stars that spin incredibly fast and blast out a beam of radiation, kind of like a lighthouse beacon. The fastest known pulsar is PSR J1748-2446ad, located around 18,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. Though it is of average size for a neutron star, it spins an astonishing 716 times per second. This is nearly a quarter of the speed of light, and exceeds what theories say is possible.


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