9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos

There is a wealth of amazing data on space that requires equally amazing visualizations.
Chris Young
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Looking up at the sky on a clear night gives us a visualization of not only space, but also time. The farther we look into the cosmos, the farther we see into the past.

The Hubble Telescope, for example, has picked up images from light that has traveled an incredible 13.2 billion years to reach us.

There is so much information about the universe that sometimes it is impossible to visualize without a computer. Such complexity demands some pretty incredible work: here are some of the most stellar space visualizations we've found.


1. Comparing an Earth day to the rest of the Solar System

Do you know why we have leap years? It's because the Earth doesn't really rotate every 24 hours. It rotates every 23 hours and 56 minutes. If we didn't add a day to our calendar roughly every 4 years on 29 February, we would lose about 6 hours off our calendar every year.

2-D rotation periods of the planets shown to relative scale, eg. Jupiter rotates around 2.4 times faster than Earth [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

You can see a visualization of the Earth's rotation, and how it compares to the rest of the Solar System, above.

As can be seen in the visualization, generally speaking, planets farther from the Sun rotate faster, though there are some extenuating circumstances that affect a planet's angular momentum, such as its composition as well as impacts it may have experienced.

 2. Representing the emptiness of space

As PhysicsJ points out, the Solar System is difficult to visualize as space is mostly made up of, well, empty space.

In this incredible clip, PhysicsJ gives us a completely to scale portrayal of the Solar System in which the Sun is one pixel in width, orbital distance is to scale, and 3 months pass per second.

The real size of our solar system is hard to portray, since space is mostly...space [OC] from r/dataisbeautiful

In the second half of the clip, PhysicsJ expands the Sun to be 40 times its actual size, and the planets are expanded to be 3500 times larger than they are. Even so, there is an awful lot of space out there.

This further serves to illustrate how much space there is between planets, and why it would take NASA and SpaceX up to 300 days to get humans to Mars.

3. Visualizing a new age in the space race

While this visualization might not directly represent anything in outer space, it is a visual representation of a great article by the Economist, titled "The space race is dominated by new contenders."

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The graph shows how private businesses and countries, are replacing the previously dominant duopoly of the U.S. and Russia. 

9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos
Source: canonicalized/Reddit

Represented in the graph is every attempt at a space launch successful and unsuccessful. It represents how commercial (private) launch providers such as SpaceX are starting to surpass the number of state launches.

For a clearer understanding of the countries and firms involved, take a look at the interactive version of the graph here.

4. Space debris from 1957 to 2016

The accumulation of space debris over the years is becoming a real problem. There is so much out there, from inoperational satellites to used first and second stages of rockets, that the objects pose a significant threat to operational satellites, launching spacecraft, and space stations in orbit.


This visualization, by Stuart Grey, shows the accumulation of space junk from the launch of the first manmade satellite Sputnik 1 and the start of the space age in 1957, to its recent state in 2016.

The video says that, from 1957 to 2016, 41,000 manmade objects had been tracked in space's orbit. Less than 10% of these are now active satellites.

5. Space missions collected

Though this image is slightly out of date, having been put together in 2009, it is a stunning depiction of every space mission undertaken over the first 50 years of the space age.

9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos
Source: thatusernameisalre/Reddit

A higher-res version of the image can be found here. Zoom in and pour over all of the details of humanity's exploration of our solar system.

6. Don't forget the space canines

During the 50s and 60s, the Soviets sent over 20 dogs into space, according to Phys.org. As the space race was heating up, animals were sent into orbit to test the effects it would have on a living creature.

9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos
Source: Duncan Geere/Reddit

This image by Duncan Geere represents all of the dogs sent into space by the Soviet Union. Though Laika, the first space dog, is seen as a hero in Russia, she died from overheating within hours of launching into space.

A lot of the animals sent into space didn't return alive. They are part of a somewhat forgotten dark side of the race to get humans into space.

7. The Geminids meteor shower

The Geminids is a well-known meteor shower caused by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. It occurs when Earth's trajectory intersects with the dust cloud created by the asteroid.

As per EarthSky.org, the Geminids meteor shower typically allows viewers to catch 50 or more meteors per hour. This year, however, the shower will coincide with bright moonlight, meaning it will be slightly less visible than usual.

9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos
Source: Peter Jenkins and Ian Webster/ meteorshowers.org

The annual meteor shower is at its most visible in mid-December and will peak next week. This handy live visualization published on MeteorShowers.org and made by Ian Webster, using data collected by Peter Jenkins, shows us how close we are to 3200 Phaethon's dust cloud.

8. Where have we been in space

This incredible compilation of data put together by the BBC, shows us where we have been in space.

As of September 2019, there have been 327 human spaceflight launch attempts, and there have been many more uncrewed missions.

9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos
Source: BBC

Much like number 6 on this list, it is worth looking at the original image, where you can zoom in and see just how much of our solar system we have explored.

This visualization shows which missions have been manned, which were successful, and what the objectives were.

9. Calculating the age of the universe

Now we get back to the night sky showing us space as well as time. This visualization represents that with a relatively simple graph.

9 Incredible Visualizations of Space to Help You Understand the Cosmos
Source: Zonination/Reddit

Zonination calculated the age of the universe, at 13.77 billion years old. The redditor described how he used the velocity of stars moving away from Earth and their distance to calculate the age of the universe:

"Velocity times time equals distance (d = v*t). If we convert to a consistent set of units, divide distance (km) over velocity (km/s), we get time (s). A simple regression line works if you switch x and y (set the intercept to 0); the slope will be time in seconds. Convert into years, and, with this data, we get 13.77 billion years. That's pretty close."

There is an incredible amount of knowledge out there. Thanks to groups of highly skilled scientists, humanity is continuously able to interpret, reveal, and learn more about the mysteries of the universe. 

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