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How vast is the observable universe? It is one of the most important issues that may be asked in astronomy. We are able to estimate a diameter if we look for the farthest point that can be observed from Earth (and, by extension, the point that is the oldest given the speed of light).
Astronomers are now able to peer back in time to the moments right after the Big Bang because technological advancements have allowed them to do so. This can give the impression that the entirety of the cosmos is visible to us at any given moment. However, the size of the universe is contingent on a variety of factors, including the shape of the cosmos and the rate at which it is expanding.
As a consequence of this, even while we are able to make educated guesses as to the size of the universe, scientists are unable to put an exact number on it.
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In 2013, the Planck space mission of the European Space Agency published the most exact and detailed map(opens in new tab) ever made of the light that has been around the longest in the history of the cosmos. It was discovered by using the map that the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years. Planck arrived at his conclusion by analyzing the cosmic microwave background radiation.
Charles Lawrence, the U.S. project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement that “the cosmic microwave background light is a traveller from far away and long ago.” Lawrence’s comments were made in reference to the cosmic microwave background light (opens in new tab). When it does arrive, it will tell us everything there is to know about the history of our universe.
Because of the relationship between distance and the speed of light, this indicates that researchers are able to observe a part of space that is 13.8 billion light-years distant. The fact that astronomers on Earth may swivel their telescopes to stare 13.8 billion light-years in every direction places Earth within of a viewable sphere that has a radius of 13.8 billion light-years. This is like to a ship sailing over an empty ocean. The term “observable” is extremely important; the sphere may restrict what scientists may observe, but it does not affect what is actually present.
However, despite the fact that the sphere’s diameter looks to be over 28 billion light-years, it is actually much greater. The expansion of the cosmos is something that scientists are aware of. Therefore, even though astronomers might be able to observe a location that was 13.8 billion light-years away from Earth at the moment of the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand over the course of its history. According to a piece written by Ethan Siegel for Forbes(opens in new tab), if inflation occurred at the same rate throughout the life of the universe, that same spot would be 46 billion light-years away today. This would make the diameter of the observable universe a sphere with a circumference of approximately 92 billion light-years.
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The notion that the expansion of the cosmos is not occurring at a constant rate adds another layer of complexity to these estimations. ESA(opens in new tab) reported on a study that was conducted in 2020 using data from the XMM-Newton observatory operated by ESA, the Chandra Space Telescope operated by NASA, and the Rosat X-ray observatory. The findings of this study suggest that the expansion of the universe is not occurring at the same rate in all directions. The research looked at the relationship between a galaxy cluster’s brightness and its X-ray temperature and found a strong correlation between the two. It seemed as though some clusters were travelling at a different pace than others since they appeared to be less light than predicted. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), “this perhaps uneven effect on cosmic expansion might be produced by the unknown dark energy.”
If a sphere were to be centered on the location of Earth in space, it might give the impression that people are at the centre of the universe. On the other hand, just like that ship out in the middle of the ocean, we have no idea where we stand in the immense scope of the cosmos. Just because we are unable to see land does not mean that we are located in the middle of the ocean, and just like we are unable to see the edge of the universe does not mean that we are at the centre of the universe.
There are a plethora of various methods that scientists use to calculate the size of the cosmos. They are able to measure the waves that come from the beginning of the universe and fill the cosmic microwave background. These waves are called baryonic acoustic oscillations. They are also able to make use of standard candles, such as type 1A supernovae, in order to determine distances. However, these several approaches to determining distances can supply the answers you’re looking for.
The manner in which inflation is shifting is another mystery. Many researchers are of the opinion that the pace of inflation is decreasing, despite the fact that the number 92 billion light-years was derived from the concept of a constant rate of inflation. If the expansion of the universe occurred during inflation at the speed of light, then the answer should be 1023, which is equal to 100 sextillion. Dark energy events may have had an effect on the expansion of the universe in the moments immediately following the Big Bang, as suggested by NASA(opens in new tab) in 2019. This is one hypothesis for this phenomenon, which was presented by NASA in 2019.
Instead of using a single method of measurement, a group of researchers at the University of Oxford lead by Mihran Vardanyan conducted a statistical analysis of all of the results. Using Bayesian model averaging, which focuses on how probable a model is to be true given the data rather than asking how well the model itself matches the data. Bayesian model averaging is a statistical technique that was developed by Bayes. They discovered that the universe is at least 250 times larger than the universe that can be observed, which is equivalent to a distance of at least 7 trillion light-years.
According to an article from 2011 published in the MIT Technology Review (opens in a new tab), “That’s large, but actually more tightly restricted than many other models.”
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