Five of the Strangest Places in the Universe

The unspeakably vast expanse of space presents a practically infinite place to explore and so far, mankind has barely scratched the surface. Today, a number of missions continue to explore the planets of our own solar system, just a minuscule speck in the Milky Way galaxy alone, while space telescopes hunt for another Earth, a life-supporting world orbiting a star beyond our own. Space is home to many truly fascinating and unimaginable things including the greatest forces of nature in existence and countless billions of new worlds to explore.

It might be easy for space to appear boring, particularly if you aren’t aware of any of the following real places out there in the Universe. On the other hand, science fiction tends to portray as fascinating, yet it does so unrealistically. The real Universe is even stranger than anything you might have seen in science fiction. Space is home to the extreme, the bizarre and even the completely inexplicable.

UY Scuti, the Largest Known Star

Since the stars look like nothing more than tiny specks of light in the night sky, it is important to remember that our own Sun is a star not unlike billions of others in our galaxy alone. The stars are just much, much further away. The Sun is a class G yellow dwarf star about half way through its ten-billion year lifespan. It has a diameter about 109 times that of Earth, or about 865 thousand miles.

UY Scuti is a red hypergiant star 9,500 light years from Earth. What’s special about UY Scuti is its phenomenal size, making it the largest star known to exist. With a diameter of 1.5 billion miles, it is 1,700 times wider than the Sun. Placed in our own solar system, it would extend far beyond the orbit of Jupiter and possibly even engulf the orbit of Saturn.

This enormous star, like many supergiants and hypergiants, will likely end its life with a supernova, the most ferocious force known to nature. This tremendous explosion in which particularly large and massive stars end their lives will obliterate everything for trillions of miles around, creating a huge and colourful nebula from which a new solar system may form.

 

Comparison of planets and stars with UY Scuti
Comparison of planets and stars with UY Scuti being the largest known star. Credit: Jcpag2012 /Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

 

MACS0647-JD, One of the Most Distant Galaxies

We all know that space is incredibly big, but when we speak of the most distant objects in the observable universe, the distances involved become truly unimaginable. Using infrared imaging with the combined power of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, MACS0647-JD was discovered in November, 2012 and is now a candidate for the most distant observable galaxy from Earth. It is so far away that it has taken light 13.3 billion years to reach us, hence it being 13.3 billion light-years away. That’s equal to a considerable 78 septillion (78 followed by 24 zeros) miles. This means that we are seeing the galaxy as it was 13.3 billion years ago, when light started the immeasurably long journey to get all the way to Earth. Until that point, it was simply invisible to us, as is the case with more distant objects.

By observing extremely distant galaxies like MACS0647-JD, scientists are able to learn more about the history of the Universe. MACS0647-JD was formed when the Universe was only 420 million years old, which not much time when it comes to cosmic evolution. The galaxy is very small as well, being only a fraction of the size of our own, the Milky Way. However, this is also how we are seeing it now. Today, the galaxy could be quite similar to our own which is also almost as old as the Universe itself. Perhaps it is even home to solar systems like our own and advanced forms of life – we will simply never know.

 

The most distant known galaxy
The most distant known galaxy MACS0647-JD spotted by Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA

 

Sagittarius A*, the Centre of the Milky Way

Sagittarius A* lies at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, about 26,000 light-years from Earth. When you see a picture of the Milky Way or a similar galaxy, you will see that the centre is an enormously dense and bright area filled with billions of dying stars, surrounded by spectacular swirling arms of stars and stellar clouds. Sagittarius A* is believed to be the site of a supermassive black hole, a star that is so enormously dense that its gravity has become so powerful that even light cannot escape it.

It is now thought that supermassive black holes lie in the centre at most, if not all galaxies. When supermassive stars end their lives, they tend to either explode as a supernova or compact into an infinitely dense mass where the laws of physics basically break down. Since nothing can travel faster than light, absolutely nothing can escape once it has passed through the event horizon which marks the border of a black hole. Effectively, this means that the star becomes invisible. Black holes last for billions of years but, eventually, they evaporate in what is called Hawking radiation.

Absolutely nothing remotely Earth-like could exist in or near the centre of the Milky Way. It is highly dense with billions of dying stars such as white dwarfs, black holes and stellar remnants left over by supernova explosions. Cosmic radiation levels are also extremely high. It seems impossible that humanity could ever visit the centre of the Milky Way, or even any other stars for that matter, and this is not only because of the impossible distances involved.

 

Sagittarius A
Sagittarius A at the center of the galaxy. Credit: ESO/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

 

SGR 1806-20, a Magnetar 50,000 Light-Years from Earth

Magnetars are a rare type of neutron star, a stellar remnant of a dying star with a particularly powerful magnetic field strong enough to destroy your old floppy disk collection from millions of miles away. When smaller stars get old, they expand into the red giant stage and afterwards start to collapse inward, becoming things like neutron stars and white dwarfs. Magnetars are the rarest and only 21 have ever been discovered.

SGR 1806-20 is located on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius. It is currently, as of 2013, the most highly-magnetized object to have ever been observed. Even more incredibly, SGR 1806-20 is only twelve miles long, rotating every 7.5 seconds. In spite of its tiny size, it has a mass of more than twelve times that of the Sun. It is also about three million times brighter than the Sun. If you were to pick an amount of matter the size of a grain of sand from SGR 1806-20, it would weigh more than a jumbo jet!

 

SGR 1806-20 neutron star
SGR 1806-20 neutron star. Credit: NASA

 

Titan, the Only Celestial Body in the Solar System with Lakes and Rivers

Titan is the largest moon of the ringed gas giant planet of Saturn. It is also the second-largest moon in the Solar System, being slightly more voluminous than even the planet Mercury. What makes Titan most unique, however, is that it is the only moon in the Solar System to sport anything more than a negligible trace atmosphere. It is also the only celestial body beyond Earth to have stable bodies of liquid on its surface.

Just like Earth, Titan has lakes and rivers, but these are quite different to those which we know here on Earth. Titan’s extremely cold surface temperatures averaging about -180°C mean that water would only exist in the form of ice as hard as granite. However, instead of flowing with water, the rivers on Titan flow with a mixture of liquid methane and ethane which only exist as a gas in natural conditions on Earth.

 

Methane thunderstorm on Titan.
Methane thunderstorm on Titan. Credit: Science Flips based on Shutterstock

 

As if this were not bizarre enough, Titan also has a climate which, in many ways, is similar to Earth. It snows and rains with ethane and methane and it has storms, including a permanent hurricane on the south pole. Geologically, Titan is a young world with few craters and a surface marked by high plateaus and sandy dunes.

Titan’s uniqueness prompted NASA to launch a landing module as part of the highly successful Cassini-Huygens mission. In 2005, the Huygens landing module landed on a soft and slightly viscous orange surface beneath the thick layer of orange haze and clouds of the atmosphere, taking the only surface photos of a celestial body beyond Mars. It has been hypothesized that Titan could be home to life which is based around a methane cycle instead of water.

 

1