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From atoms to black holes: the scale of the universe and how we fit in

  • From atoms to black holes: the scale of the universe and how we fit in
    1/ CanyonlandsNPS

    From atoms to black holes: the scale of the universe and how we fit in

    The universe is a massive, mysterious place; our solar system, and specifically the human race, plays only a minor role in the greater span of the universe. The observable universe, 45.7 billion light-years large, is only what humans have been able to discover. But the entire universe is thought to be more than 250 times larger than that.

    Much of what we do know about the observable universe has been documented by telescopes, such as the Hubble Space telescope, since the universe is too vast for human exploration. Our solar system is one of many solar systems within our galaxy, and our galaxy is only one of many galaxies within our universe.

    Stacker researchers investigated different structures in the universe and ranked them in order from largest (universe) to smallest (subatomic) and everything in between. These rankings include structures found in outer space, such as nebulae, galaxies, and planets, as well as such things as Mount Everest, human beings, and elements on our home planet Earth.

    While researching structures or particles that are much smaller than we may have ever thought possible, such as quantum foam, performing research on the depths of space has proven to be much more challenging. Through our understanding of the world around us on Earth, we can use science to deepen our understanding of events that happen on even subatomic levels. The same cannot be said for certain parts of outer space and our universe. Scientists are always learning new things about what's “out there,” and no sort of guidebook exists for what to expect.

    Read on to learn about the scale of the universe.

    You might also like: Countries that spend the most on space exploration

  • The observable universe
    2/ NASA Hubble // Flickr

    The observable universe

    Size: 45.7 billion light-years

    The size of the universe has been a major topic of discussion for years. For many decades, scientists believed the universe was 13.75 billion light-years (one light-year equals about 93 million miles), determined by multiplying the speed of light (186,282 miles per second) by the time that has elapsed since the Big Bang (13.75 billion years). However, after making adjustments for when the light was produced, universe expansion, and acceleration, a group of astrophysicists in 2005 led by J. Richard Gott of Princeton University calculated the radius of the observable universe to be 45.7 billion light-years.

  • The Hubble Ultra Deep Field
    3/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video // Flickr

    The Hubble Ultra Deep Field

    Size: 10 billion light-years

    Deep field observations are long-lasting observations that reveal faint objects by gathering light. The deeper the observation, meaning the longer the exposure time, the fainter the objects that are coming to light. The 2004 Hubble Ultra Deep Field shows the deepest visible light image of the observable universe ever to be achieved by humankind.

  • Sloan Great Wall
    4/ europeanspaceagency // Flickr

    Sloan Great Wall

    Size: 1.3 billion light-years

    The Sloan Great Wall is a group of galaxies located in the Sloan Digital Sky and is considered the largest known structure. Several large superclusters of galaxies can be seen in this structure, such as the Shapley Supercluster (part of the Pisces-Cetus Supercluster).

  • Eridanus Supervoid: Possible parallel universe?
    5/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video// Flickr

    Eridanus Supervoid: Possible parallel universe?

    Size: 500 million light-years

    The Eridanus Supervoid is a cosmic microwave background (CMB) cold spot in the universe. Although CMB cold spots are somewhat common in space, the Eridanus Supervoid cold spot is so large and so cold that it cannot be explained by the same measures as the other cold spots. Some researchers argue that it is actually a supervoid into a parallel universe.

  • Virgo Supercluster
    6/ NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC // Wikimedia Commons

    Virgo Supercluster

    Size: 110 million light-years

    The Virgo Supercluster is home to over 100 galactic clusters, the largest being the Virgo Cluster. This cluster is located within the Pisces-Cetus Supercluster Complex. What we know as the Milky Way galaxy is on the outskirts of the Virgo Supercluster.

  • Andromeda Galaxy
    7/ NASA // Wikimedia Commons

    Andromeda Galaxy

    Size: 150,000 light-years

    The Andromeda Galaxy is considered the Milky Way's twin, as they are relatively the same size and similar in shape. It is predicted that these two galaxies will collide in a few billion years to form an elliptical galaxy, Milkomeda.

  • Milky Way Galaxy
    8/ Pixabay

    Milky Way Galaxy

    Size: 120,000 light-years

    The Milky Way Galaxy is where we live. It is a large barred spiral galaxy and looks like a milky band of light in the sky when seen in a dark area. There are an estimated 100 billion stars in this galaxy. However, scientists' estimations are based on what they can see from within the galaxy, which has made research somewhat difficult.

  • Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy
    9/ Hubble Heritage // Flickr

    Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy

    Size: 10,000 light-years

    The Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy is one of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies, as it is only 70,000 light-years away. It is also the closest galaxy to our own and is one of many galaxies in the area, as well as two magellanic clouds (irregular dwarf galaxies). This galaxy was discovered in 1994 and astronomers currently believe it is being slowly pulled apart by gravity.

  • Tarantula Nebula
    10/ NASA // Wikimedia Commons

    Tarantula Nebula

    Size: 600–1,000 light-years

    The Tarantula Nebula is the largest known nebula in our universe. It is extremely violent, with intense radiation, winds, and supernova shocks coming from the center of this massive star. It is also one of the brightest non-stellar objects known in this universe.

  • Omega Centauri
    11/ European Southern Observatory (ESO) // Wikimedia Commons

    Omega Centauri

    Size: 150 light-years

    The Omega Centauri is the brightest globular cluster in our galaxy and contains over 10 million stars. Scientists believe this cluster may be the remnant core of a smaller galaxy that collided and merged with the Milky Way.

  • Lagoon Nebula
    12/ European Southern Observatory (ESO) // Wikimedia Commons

    Lagoon Nebula

    Size: 110 light-years

    The Lagoon Nebula was discovered in 1747 and contains many Bok globules, which are dark collapsing clouds of protostellar material, and many volatile stars. The giant star in the center of the nebula is called Herschel 36 and it blasts out ultraviolet radiation, tornadoes, and hurricane-like stellar winds.

  • Orion Nebula
    13/ NASA // Wikimedia Commons

    Orion Nebula

    Size: 24 light-years

    This nebula is one of the most visible from Earth, and is its closest large star-forming region. It lies in the Orion constellation, hence its name. The Orion Nebula is an enormous cloud of dust and gas and many new stars are being formed within it.

  • The Pillars of Creation
    14/ NASA // Wikimedia Commons

    The Pillars of Creation

    Size: 4-8 light-years

    The Pillars of Creation reside within the center of the Eagle Nebula and are made of cosmic dust and gas. They are part of an active star-forming region within the Eagle Nebula and contain many newborn stars within their pillars.

  • Oort Cloud
    15/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video // Flickr

    Oort Cloud

    Size: 2 light-years

    The Oort Cloud can be found in the outermost region of our solar system at the edge of the Kuiper Belt. It is believed that the Oort Cloud is a giant spherical shell surrounding the sun, our planets, and the Kuiper Belt. The icy bodies within the cloud are extremely large, bigger in some cases than Earth's mountains.

  • Gomez's Hamburger
    16/ Hubble Heritage // Flickr

    Gomez's Hamburger

    Size: 2.5 trillion kilometers

    Gomez's Hamburger is a sun-like star that is emitting large amounts of dust and gas as it nears the end of its life. It will soon become a planetary nebula once the star officially dies, and is 2.5 trillion kilometers large. The hamburger “buns” are light reflected off dust, and the “patty” is the dark strip of dust in the middle.

  • Kuiper Belt
    17/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video // Flickr

    Kuiper Belt

    Size: 1.5 billion kilometers

    The Kuiper Belt is an area of leftovers from our solar system's early history. It is a doughnut-shaped ring that contains icy comets and other icy objects. Although in the universe the Kuiper Belt is not a major structure, it is considered one of the largest structures in our solar system.

  • The sun
    18/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video // Flickr

    The sun

    Size: 1.4 million kilometers

    Although our sun appears to be very large in the context of our solar system, it is actually only an average-sized star. This star emits large amounts of heat and light, as well as solar winds, which are low-density streams of charged particles. These solar winds, as well as solar flares, are responsible for many occurrences on Earth, such as the aurora borealis.

  • Jupiter
    19/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video // Flickr


    Size: 140,000 kilometers

    Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and is more than twice as massive as all the other planets combined. It is a gas giant and has over 75 moons. The iconic Giant Red Spot is a massive storm that is roughly double the size of Earth and has been active for over a century.

  • Earth
    20/ NASA Goddard Photo and Video // Flickr


    Size: 40,075 kilometers

    Earth is relatively small compared with other planets and structures found in our solar system and the universe. It only has one moon, which is uncommon for our solar system. It is believed that our planet formed 4.6 billion years ago from a solar nebula explosion resulting in clumps of matter that collided and merged together.

  • Great Wall of China
    21/ Severin.stalder // Wikimedia Commons

    Great Wall of China

    Size: 21,196 kilometers

    The Great Wall of China, located in Northern China, is the longest wall in the world at more than 13,000 miles, and has a 2,300-plus-year history built by different states or dynasties. It was originally intended to be three times the height of a man, though it is not clear if that feat was ever completely accomplished, and parts of it have eroded over time. It was built to stymie invaders and to protect Silk Road trade.

  • Grand Canyon
    22/ TommoT // Shutterstock

    Grand Canyon

    Size: 450 kilometers long

    The Grand Canyon is a massive national park in Arizona. Not only is it vast in size, containing over 1 million acres, but the Colorado River, which carved the canyon, courses across the canyon bottom. Width and depth of the canyon vary, depending on the location.

  • Halley's Comet
    23/ Edward Emerson Barnard // Wikimedia Commons

    Halley's Comet

    Size: 11 kilometers

    Halley's Comet was predicted by Edmond Halley in 1705 after he surveyed the orbits of 24 comets and realized that comets that appeared in 1531, 1607, and 1682 had similar orbits. He determined it was actually one comet that had an orbital period of approximately 76 years. The discovery was also notable because it proved that there are other celestial objects in our solar system that are centered around the Sun.

  • Mount Everest
    24/ Christopher Burns // Unsplash

    Mount Everest

    Size: 8.8 kilometers

    Mount Everest in southern Asia is part of the Great Himalayas, and is the highest mountain in the world. Over 4,000 people have climbed it, though almost 300 have died in their attempts to conquer the mountain.

  • Central Park
    25/ Photo Spirit // Shutterstock

    Central Park

    Size: 4 kilometers

    Central Park is the largest public park in New York City; construction began in 1858 after many years of planning and project proposals. It officially opened in 1876 and is considered to this day one of highest achievements in artificial landscaping.

  • Burj Khalifa
    26/ Romrodphoto // Shutterstock

    Burj Khalifa

    Size: 828 meters

    The Burj Khalifa, located in Dubai, UAE, is the tallest building, the tallest structure, and the tallest free-standing structure in the world. At more than 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa has the most stories in the world, as well as the elevator with the farthest travel distance in the world.

  • Titanic
    27/ F.G.O. Stuart // Wikimedia Commons


    Size: 270 meters

    The RMS Titanic was built in the early 1900s and was one of the biggest ships for its time. It could hold over 3,500 people and could reach 24 knots (27.6 mph) at full speed. However, it had only been at sea for five days during its maiden voyage when it hit an iceberg and sank in the ocean, killing roughly 1,500 of the 2,200 people on board.

  • Tyrannosaurus Rex
    28/ FunkMonk & Fæ // Wikimedia Commons

    Tyrannosaurus Rex

    Size: 7 meters tall

    The Tyrannosaurus Rex was one of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs to ever live. Roughly 12 meters long, seven meters tall and with a 1.5 meters-long skull, this dinosaur was a fierce predator. It became extinct as part of the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction 65 million years ago.

  • Human
    29/ Jehyun Sung // Unsplash


    Size: 1.7 meters

    Human beings play a large role on Earth, but as far as we know, this is the only planet in our solar system that supports living beings. Compared with other mammals that have lived on the planet, humans are fairly average sized.

  • Russell's Teapot
    30/ Kowit Phothisan // Unsplash

    Russell's Teapot

    Size: 25 centimeters

    In 1952, British Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell suggested that there was a teapot revolving around the sun in an elliptical orbit. The teapot, however, was too small to be seen with a telescope, therefore no one could prove or disprove whether this teapot was actually there. This teapot analogy was used in discussions concerning the existence of God.

  • Ant
    31/ Enrico Mantegazza // Unsplash


    Size: 4 millimeters

    These tiny insects make up a decent proportion of the land animal/insect population, as there are billions, if not trillions, of ants on the planet. Ants live in structured colonies, run by the queen ant and operated by female worker ants with the main goal of protecting the colony and continuously reproducing.

  • Human egg
    32/ Ed Uthman // Wikimedia Commons

    Human egg

    Size: 120 micrometers

    An ovum, or a human egg, is the largest cell in the human body. Because of its size, a human egg can be seen with the naked eye, without the aid of a microscope.

  • Skin cells
    33/ Mulletsrokk // Wikimedia Commons

    Skin cells

    Size: 35 micrometers

    Skin cells, also known as keratinocytes, develop from the bottom, or basal layer, and travel upward during a four-week period until they reach the outermost surface where they shed. By the time they reach the outermost surface, these cells are dead and are at their strongest protection.

  • Mist droplet
    34/ Pixabay

    Mist droplet

    Size: 20 micrometers

    Mist droplets can somewhat reduce visibility, as well as reflect and scatter light so rays of light shine through them. Rainbows are formed when there are mist droplets in the air after a rainstorm and the sun shines through them.

  • Width of silk fiber
    35/ Pixabay

    Width of silk fiber

    Size: 15 micrometers

    Silk is considered a luxury in many parts of the world and is used in clothing and other fabrics and textiles. It is produced by silkworm larvae, and certain types of silkworms, such as the mulberry silkworm, are more valuable than others.

  • White blood cells
    36/ Pixabay

    White blood cells

    Size: 10 micrometers

    White blood cells, although only making up about 1% of our blood, are key to good health and protection against diseases. These cells flow through the bloodstream and fight off viruses, bacteria, and foreign bodies that can threaten our health.

  • Red blood cell
    37/ Pixabay

    Red blood cell

    Size: 7 micrometers

    Red blood cells carry fresh oxygen, circulating throughout the body once every 20 seconds. They are small and circular, with a dent in the middle to allow for more surface area and easier transportation of life-giving oxygen.

  • The powerhouse of the cell: mitochondria
    38/ CI Photos // Shutterstock

    The powerhouse of the cell: mitochondria

    Size: 4 micrometers

    Mitochondria are known as the powerhouses of the cell, as they fuel our metabolism by turning oxygen and nutrients into energy. Mitochondria are essential to survival, and there are trillions of mitochondria in our bodies.

  • X chromosome
    39/ CHIARI VFX // Shutterstock

    X chromosome

    Size: 4 micrometers

    The X chromosome is the basic structure for most chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes, while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. It was first discovered in 1890 by Hermann Henking in Leipzig, Germany.

  • Red light wavelength
    40/ Pixabay

    Red light wavelength

    Size: 680–750 nanometers

    Red light wavelength is the first color in the visible color spectrum and has the longest wavelength of all the colors. The wavelength indicates that the energy of the light, or its photons, is very low.

  • Largest virus: megavirus
    41/ Chantal Abergel // Wikimedia Commons

    Largest virus: megavirus

    Size: 440 nanometers

    The megavirus was discovered in 2010 by a group of scientists involved in the research of the mimivirus, which was the largest virus until the megavirus was found. Although the megavirus is slightly smaller in size than the mimivirus, its DNA genome—complete set of DNA—is much larger, containing 1,259,197 base pairs.

  • Smallest thing visible with an optical microscope
    42/ Pixabay

    Smallest thing visible with an optical microscope

    Size: 200 nanometers

    This is the smallest size an optical microscope can see. This microscope is commonly found in high school or college labs.

  • HIV
    43/ Roingeard // Wikimedia Commons


    Size: 90 nanometers

    HIV is a virus that attacks the body's immune system and causes AIDS. Less than 1% of the human population has HIV. Although this virus is extremely small, it is extremely powerful and often fatal. There is currently no cure for AIDS.

  • DNA
    44/ Pixabay


    Size: 3 nanometers (width)

    Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) stores genetic information in humans, as well as almost every other living thing on Earth. DNA strands contain about 25,000 genes and a single human cell contains roughly three meters of DNA. Most DNA among humans looks exactly the same, even though on the outside we may look different.

  • Glucose molecule
    45/ Pyre42 // Wikimedia Commons

    Glucose molecule

    Size: 800 picometer

    Glucose is a simple sugar that humans use for energy. Plants produce glucose through photosynthesis and turn it into complex sugars. When humans eat plants or animals that have eaten plants, we break down these complex sugars into glucose.

  • Alpha helix
    46/ WillowW // Wikimedia Commons

    Alpha helix

    Size: 500 picometer

    The alpha helix is one of the secondary structures of proteins and many proteins contain alpha helices. Two proteins, hemoglobin and myoglobin, are made up of about 70% alpha helices.

  • Water molecule
    47/ bobyramone// Shutterstock

    Water molecule

    Size: 280 picometer

    Water is composed of two hydrogen elements bonded to one oxygen element. It is the only natural substance found in all three forms (solid, liquid, gas) on Earth. As a universal solvent, it dissolves more substances than any other liquid. The physical water molecule resembles Mickey Mouse.

  • Most abundant element in the universe: hydrogen
    48/ Emmily // Shutterstock

    Most abundant element in the universe: hydrogen

    Size: 31 picometers

    Hydrogen consists of one proton and one election and is the most abundant element in the universe, making up about 75% of the mass of the universe. It is the simplest and lightest element found on the periodic table.

  • Gamma ray wavelength
    49/ European Southern Observatory // Flickr

    Gamma ray wavelength

    Size: 1 picometer

    Gamma rays have an extremely high frequency and can come from radioactive decay or other nuclear reactions. They are the most energetic wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma rays can be produced from processes that occur in black holes and pulsars.

  • Proton size
    50/ Ezume Images // Shutterstock

    Proton size

    Size: 0.000000000000001 m

    The size of a proton has long been debated by scientists. Disputes over how to accurately measure protons prevented an agreed-upon calculation. However, in 2010 a new kind of experiment was performed by the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, using a lab-made ‘muonic' hydrogen atom that allowed scientists to more accurately estimate the proton's radius.

  • Quantum foam
    51/ Alex Sukontsev // Flickr

    Quantum foam

    Size: 0.0000000001 yoctometers

    The study of quantum foam falls under quantum mechanics, a branch of physics that examines how light and matter operate at atomic scales. Quantum gravity models claim that space-time is composed of tiny foaming regions that blink in and out of existence, similar to bubbles in a can of soda. Since there is no such thing as empty space, these “bubbles” coming in and out of existence are known as quantum foam.

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