Scale of the universe

Hubble Ultradeep Field

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Until 500 years ago the premise of an Earth-centric solar system and universe prevailed. And until 100 years ago it was thought that we lived within the confines of a single galaxy, our Milky Way. But in 1915 Albert Einstein introduced general relativity, the highly successful theory of gravity which couples mass, energy and the geometry of space-time. In the 1920s Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaitre introduced solutions to the equations of general relativity for an expanding universe. Lemaitre’s work indicated distant galaxies would have their light shifted to be redder than that of nearby galaxies. And by 1929 this was observed by Edwin Hubble. Now with the Hubble Space Telescope we can observe galaxies at much greater distances than Hubble could over 80 years ago. The image above is a very long exposure from the Hubble Space Telescope revealing close to 10,000 galaxies; many of these are billions of light-years away.

Hubble essentially measured the rate of expansion of the universe at the present epoch. The universe is expanding and galaxies are generally receding from one another except when they are gravitationally bound to their near neighbors. The value for the rate of expansion has been refined over the intervening years but is now accurately measured and indicates an age of just under 14 billion years for our universe.

The size of the universe as a whole we are unable to measure! We are limited by our own horizon, due to the finite speed of light. Only galaxies apparently moving away from us at less than the speed of light are within our horizon (also known as light cone). General relativity allows for space itself to stretch at faster than the speed of light if the separations between two galaxies are large enough; objects do not travel faster than light speed within their own local frame.

Our own observable portion of the universe has a lookback time distance of 14 billion light-years and what is known as the comoving distance of nearly 50 billion light-years. The comoving distance takes into account the expansion of the universe as the light moves through it from the Big Bang until now.

Note from the table below how much larger the universe is than the distance to the center of our galaxy or to the nearest star.

Object                    Distance (light travel time)

Nearest Star                        4.2 years
Center of Milky Way         25,000 years
Andromeda Galaxy           2.5 million years
Oldest Galaxies                  13 billion years
Big Bang                              13.8 billion years


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