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How Big Is the Universe?

The solar system is big, the distances between stars bigger, and the distance to the center of the galaxy in which we live is even bigger than that. But all of that is tiny compared to the distance to the edge of the known universe! Just how big is that? The Math Dude breaks it down.

By
Jason Marshall, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #206

How Big Is the Milky Way Galaxy?

Spiral GalaxyAs it turns out, even the distance to this nearest star is tiny from some perspectives. As you may know, our solar system and all of the stars you see in the night sky all live in what's called the Milky Way Galaxy. And in comparison to all of the sizes we've looked at so far, the Galaxy is truly enormous.

How big is it? The center of the Milky Way Galaxy is about 145.9 quadrillion miles from Earth. That's so far that light, which travels faster than anything else in the universe, takes almost 25,000 years to reach us from the center of the galaxy.

To gain a little perspective on just how far this is, let's go back to our football field model. In that 57.3 billion-to-1 scale model, in which Proxima Centauri is located 433 miles away, the center of the Milky Way Galaxy would be about 2.5 million miles away. For comparison, that's more than 100 times around the Earth's circumference!

Are these numbers starting to make you feel tiny yet? We're not done…

How Big Is the Universe?

While the Milky Way is big, it turns out there are hundreds of billions of galaxies like it in the visible universe. Which means that the visible universe itself must be vastly bigger. And indeed it is.

At this point, our football field model (with the Sun shrunk to the size of a quarter) begins to fail us. After all, we've already had to travel around the Earth 100+ times to model the size of the Milky Way, so trying to model the size of the entire universe at this scale just won't do. Instead, let's shrink the entire Milky Way Galaxy down to the size of that quarter—this gives us a 37 billion trillion-to-1 scale model!

The edge of the visible universe would be over 130 football fields away.

If we put our quarter-sized Milky Way Galaxy model down on a goal line, the nearest really large galaxy—known as Andromeda—would sit just short of the 1 yard line. The Milky Way and Andromeda are the most prominent of the 50 or so nearby galaxies that sit in what's called the Local Group. And this group is just one of a number of clusters of galaxies in what's called the Virgo Supercluster. On our model, the center of the Virgo Supercluster—from which light takes over 50 million years to reach us—would sit at about the 15 yard line.

But, cosmically speaking, the Virgo Supercluster is still pretty much right next door. Because at this scale, the edge of the visible universe would be over 130 football fields away. And all of that space, over those 130 football fields, is speckled with more than 100 billion galaxies, each of which are speckled with hundreds of billions of stars. Many of these 10 billion trillion stars are no doubt orbited by planets...and perhaps some of these planets are inhabited by other intelligent beings thinking thoughts similar to these about the vastness of the universe.

Wrap Up

OK, that's all the math (and astronomy) that we have time for today.

Please be sure to check out my book, The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. And remember to become a fan of The Math Dude on Facebook, where you’ll find lots of great math posted throughout the week. If you’re on Twitter, please follow me there, too.

Until next time, this is Jason Marshall with The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Make Math Easier. Thanks for reading, math fans!

Spiral galaxy and solar system images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Jason Marshall, PhD

Jason Marshall is the author of The Math Dude's Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. He provides clear explanations of math terms and principles, and his simple tricks for solving basic algebra problems will have even the most math-phobic person looking forward to working out whatever math problem comes their way.