The universe is well…huge. Mind bogglingly huge. So huge, it’s hard to grasp really how big it is. Let me try to put it into perspective.
Our sun is a medium sized star and it’s 93 million miles away. One million Earths could fit inside the sun. A medium sized star. Sunlight takes 8 minutes to get here.
The next closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years away. That means it takes light from that star 4.2 years to reach us. If you owned a Millennium Falcon from Star Wars and engaged your light speed drive, it would take you over 4 years to reach Proxima Centauri!
That’s just the closest star. We live in a galaxy called the The Milky Way, and the next closest major galaxy, M31 a.k.a. the Andromeda Galaxy, is over 2 million light years away. That Millennium Falcon of yours traveling at the speed of light would take over 2 million years to reach the Andromeda Galaxy. To say that it’s REALLY far away would be supreme understatement.
That’s just the closest major galaxy. Currently the furthest known galaxy from us is on the other side of the known universe at 12.88 billion light years away. That means that it takes light from that galaxy 12.88 BILLION years to get here. Don’t forget, light is fast. Really fast. Like, 670,616,629 miles per hour fast.
So if there is intelligent life on other planets in other star systems, they won’t be traveling to good ol’ Earth any time soon, unless they’ve found a way to bend time and space in such a way as to teleport here. The “light-speed road” is a theoretically long and lonely one that they’d most likely not take. Nor would we.
So for now, we must be content with exploring our solar system and gazing through our light-gathering telescopes. Speaking of, astronauts just launched last week in what could be the last Space Shuttle mission ever. They went to repair the Hubble Space Telescope to extend its life for at least 5 more years. This may seem sad as Hubble has given us so many beautiful images and wonderful data over the years, but there are new telescopes being built and put into space which will continue Hubble’s trend of capturing our imaginations. You can find Hubble’s final farewell image from its decommissioned Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) here.
Here are a few of the new space telescopes that have recently launched or are planned for launch in the next 5 years:
The Kepler Telescope was successfully launched on March 6th this year on its mission to search out Earth-like planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way.
The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE will take nearly 1,500,000 pictures covering the entire sky as it orbits the earth from pole to pole after it launches in November this year.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide after it launches in 2014. The Herschel and Planck spacecrafts, which are European Space Agency missions with significant participation from NASA, hitched a ride together on an Ariane 5 rocket May 14th this year and will begin their separate, but ambitious missions to attempt to unveil the secrets of the darkest, coldest and oldest parts of the universe.