This is a light-beam travelling at the speed of light, which left the Sun when you loaded the page. It will get to Earth in about 8 minutes, to Pluto in about 5.5 hours
You Are Here
Pluto (we still love you)
That was about 10 million km (6,213,710 mi) just now.
Pretty empty out here.
Here comes our first planet...
As it turns out, things are pretty far apart.
We’ll be coming up on a new planet soon. Sit tight.
Most of space is just space.
It would take about seven months to travel this distance in a spaceship. Better be some good in-flight entertainment.
In case you're wondering, you'd need about 2000 feature-length movies to occupy that many waking hours.
Sit back and relax. Jupiter is more than 3 times as far as we just traveled.
When are we gonna be there?
Seriously. When are we gonna be there?
This is where we might at least see some asteroids to wake us up. Too bad they're all too small to appear on this map.
I spy, with my little eye... something black.
If you were on a road trip, driving at 75mi/hr, it would have taken you over 500 years to get here from Earth.
All these distances are just averages, mind you. The distance between planets really depends on where the two planets are in their orbits around the sun. So if you're planning on taking a trip to Jupiter, you might want to use a different map.
If you plan it right, you can actually move relatively quickly between planets. The New Horizons space craft that launched in 2006 only took 13 months to get to Jupiter. Don't worry. It'll take a lot less than 13 months to scroll there.
Pretty close to Jupiter now.
Sorry. That was a lie before. Now we really are pretty close.
Lots of time to think out here...
Pop the champagne! We just passed 1 billion km.
I guess this is why most maps of the solar system aren't drawn to scale. It's not hard to draw the planets. It's the empty space that's a problem.
Most space charts leave out the most significant part – all the space.
We're used to dealing with things at a much smaller scale than this.
When it comes to things like the age of the Earth, the number of snowflakes in Siberia, the national debt... Those things are too much for our brains to handle.
We need to reduce things down to something we can see or experience directly in order to understand them.
We're always trying to come up with metaphors for big numbers. Even so, they never seem to work.
Let's try a few metaphors anyway...
You would need 886 of these screens lined up one below the other to show this whole map at once.
If this map was printed from
a quality printer (300 pixels per inch) the Earth would be invisible,
and the height of the paper would need to be 475 feet. 475 feet is about 1 and 1/2 football fields.
Even though we don’t really understand them, a lot can happen within these massive lengths of time and space. A drop of water can carve out a canyon. An amoeba can become a dolphin. A star can collapse on itself.
It’s easy to disregard
nothingness because there’s no thought available to encapsulate it.
There’s no metaphor that fits because, by definition, once the
nothingness becomes tangible, it ceases to exist.
It’s a good thing we have these tiny stars and planets, otherwise we’d have no point of reference at all. We’d be surrounded by this stuff that our minds weren’t built to understand.
All this emptiness really
could drive you nuts. For instance, if you’re in a sensory deprivation
tank for too long, your brain starts to make things up. You see and hear
things that aren’t there.
The brain isn't built to handle "empty."
"Sorry, Humanity," says
Evolution. "What with all the jaguars trying to eat you, the parasites
in your fur, and the never-ending need for a decent steak, I was a
little busy. I didn’t exactly have time to come up with a way to
conceive of vast stretches of nothingness."
Neurologically speaking, we
really only deal with matter of a certain size, and energy of a few
select wavelengths. For everything else, we have to make up mental
models and see if they match up to the tiny shreds of hard evidence that
actually feel real.
The mental models provided by mathematics are extremely helpful when trying to make sense of these vast distances, but still... Abstraction is pretty unsatisfying.
When you hear people talk
about how, "there’s more to this universe than our minds can conceive
of" it's usually a way to get you to go along with a half-baked plot
point about UFOs or super-powers in a sci-fi series that you're watching
late at night when you can’t get to sleep.
Even when Shakespeare
wrote: "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are
dreamt of in your philosophy” – he's basically trying to give us a
loophole to make the ghost in the story more believable.
But all this empty space,
these things of a massive scale, really are more than our minds can
conceive of. The maps and metaphors fail to do them justice.
You look at one tiny dot, then you look for the next tiny dot. Everything in between is inconsequential and fairly boring.
Emptiness is actually everywhere. It’s something like 99.9999999999999999999958% of the known universe.
Even an atom is mostly empty space.
If the proton of a
hydrogen atom was the size of the sun on this map, we would need 11 more
of these maps to show the average distance to the electron.
Some theories say all this emptiness is actually full of energy or dark matter and that nothing can truly be empty... but come on, only ordinary matter has any meaning for us.
You could safely say the universe is a "whole lotta nothing."
If so much of the universe
is made up of emptiness, what does that mean to people like us, living
on a tiny speck in the middle of all of it?
Is the known universe 99.9999999999999999999958% empty? Or is it 0.0000000000000000000042% full?
With so much
emptiness, aren't stars, planets, and people just glitches in an
otherwise elegant and uniform nothingness, like pieces of lint on a
But without the tiny
dots for it to stretch between, there would be no emptiness to measure,
and for that matter, no one around to measure it.
You might say that so
much emptiness makes the tiny bits of matter that much more meaningful -
simply by the fact that, against all odds, they aren't empty. If you're drowning in the middle of the ocean, a floating piece of driftwood is a pretty big deal.
What if trillions of stars and planets were crammed right next to each other? They wouldn't be special at all.
It seems like we are both pathetically insignificant, and miraculously important at the same time.
Whether you more
strongly feel the monumental significance of tiny things or the massive
void between them depends on who you are, and how your brain chemistry
is balanced at a particular moment. We walk around with miniature,
emotional versions of the universe inside of us.
It's reassuring to
know that no matter how depressingly bleak or ridiculously momentous we
feel, the universe, judging by its current structure, seems well aware
of both extremes.
The fact that you're here, in the midst of all this nothing, is pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.
Congratulations on making it this far.
Might as well stop now. We'll need to scroll through 6,771 more maps like this before we see anything else.