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Bridging the universe: How big is the cosmos and is it measurable?

Planck space mission of the European Space Agency has made available detailed maps of the cosmos’ oldest light, but even this only nicks the surface of the universe’s full extent.

In Short

  • The observable universe is the part we can see
  • Astronomers use various methods to measure cosmic distances
  • The cosmos’s real size remains uncertain

The universe has long mesmerized humanity with its enormity and mystery. One of the key questions that astronomers in particular and curious minds in general have pondered is, “How big is the universe?” Despite substantial advancements in technology and astrophysics, a conclusive answer to this question remains elusive. The observable universe — the part we can view from Earth — has been estimated to be around 93 billion light-years in diameter. This astounding figure is based on the distance that light, traveling at 3,00,000 kilometres per second, could cover in the 13.8 billion years since hypothesized Big Bang.

Nonetheless, this does not account for the universe’s unceasing expansion over time, which complicates the measurement. Astronomers employ several means to gauge celestial distances. They utilize baryonic acoustic oscillations for study of the early universe’s waves within the cosmic microwave background. Furthermore, standard candles like type 1A supernovae function as benchmarks for measuring vast distances. The Hubble Space Telescope has observed Cepheid variables, which are utilized as stepping-stones for determining the scale of the universe through their connection with supernovae.

Despite using these techniques, the universe’s real size remains uncertain for the astronomers. It might be infinite, and parts of it are too far away for the light emitted there after the Big Bang to have reached us or our instruments, positioning them outside the observable universe. The Planck space mission of ESA has provided detailed maps of the universe’s oldest light, but even this only grazes the surface of the cosmos’ full extent.

Inflation theory proposes that the visible cosmos is merely a fraction of the whole, potentially infinite universe. The universe’s shape also plays some role in its size, with likelihoods ranging from a closed sphere to an infinite and flat stretch.

Scientists led by Mihran Vardanyan at the Oxford University have tried to statistically analyze all measurement results to estimate the size of the universe. Their findings suggest that the cosmos is at least 250 times bigger than the observable universe (or at least 7 trillion light-years across). As we carry on exploring and mapping the cosmos, the cosmos’ enormity serves as a chastening reminder of our place within it.

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