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The World is Big, the Moon is Far; The World is Small, the Moon is Close

March 13, 2010

No word is sufficient to create a vivid sense of how big the universe is. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking and reading about space, I struggle to comprehend its scale. This is the first of what will be an occasional series of my thoughts on the subject. I just want to give a sense of what I need to think about in order to visualize the enormity of space.

At the equator, the earth is about 25,000 miles around. At 600 miles per hour -roughly the speed a passenger jet flies- it would take about 41 hours to circle the planet.

The moon is about 250,000 miles away. Roughly 10 times the distance of the earth’s cirumference. That’s pretty far. It took about 3 days for the Apollo missions to travel the distance between our planet and the moon, and they were flying at thousands of miles an hour. So Neil, Buzz, and Michael traveled about 10 times as far as the distance between Brooklyn and Manhattan (if you’re traveling east).

Venus is our nearest planetary neighbor. At their closest, the planets come within 26 million miles of each other. We’ll never send people there because it’s a death trap. Its atmosphere is almost 97% carbon dioxide, causing a greenhouse effect that keeps the planet at about 860 °F. It’s hotter than Mercury, despite being twice as far from the sun.

Pluto notwithstanding, the furthest planet in our solar system is Neptune. It’s about 2.3 billion miles from us. It takes light about four hours and fifteen minutes to travel between Earth and Neptune. In 1989, Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to fly by Neptune. Voyager 2 left Earth in 1977.

In 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took a picture of earth from about 3.5 billion miles away. We’re that one bluish pixel in the orange band to the right.

Voyager 1 also launched in 1977; it traveled thousands of miles an hour for 13 years to take that picture. Voyager has been traveling for 20 years since taking that picture; now over 10 billion miles away, it’s still well within the boundaries of our solar system.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 14, 2010 10:56 am

    This was cool. It has something that this doesn’t.

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