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21 COSMIC WEBSITES YOU NEED TO KNOW

How big is space? Sci-fi legend David Brin investigates

David Brin cosmic websites hero TOPIA

The universe is pretty damn big. But how big? Acclaimed science fiction author David Brin explores its vast scale thanks to mind-blowing interactive maps, graphics and films – with the help of some animals

Want to expand your horizons? There’s a whole lot of space in space. So how to envision the immensity of a universe almost beyond our comprehension?

Here’s a list of 21 interactive sites that let you zoom or scroll through the vastness of the cosmos, scaling in from galaxies to planets to buildings to atoms and quarks – or to explore the realm of Time – from the Big Bang through the evolution of life on Earth to the history of humanity.


I’ve always been a big fan of “powers of ten” style zoom-in and zoom-out graphics and films that bring home the incredible ranges of scale that we must deal with, in our puny, brittle minds.  

This supercool slide-able graphic really brings it home. Dizzyingly fun: this interactive version of the universe (from by Number Sleuth) takes you in scale from a hydrogen atom to a cell to a human (well, Adam and Eve) to a star – then on to our galaxy, local superclusters and beyond.

2
The Scale of the Universe

This interactive site (from Cary Huang) expands in scale from the extremely small to the incredibly immense – starting with quantum foam (at the Planck length of 10 -35 m) to neutrinos, quarks, atoms, and cells all the way up to humans, buildings, planets, stars, galaxies and superclusters (on the gigaparsec level). You’ll encounter a wide range of lesser known units for measurement: yoctometer, heptameter, attometer, femtometer, picometer…

3
If the Moon Were Only One Pixel

This is fun! A ginormously accurate scale model of our solar system (from Josh Worth) lets you scroll from the Sun to Earth… and all the way out to Pluto, if you have the extraordinary patience to go that far. Read the comments along the way. Most of space is just space… and passing through the Asteroid Belt you will never actually see a single asteroid.

5
The Known Universe

This gorgeous six minute film (from the American Museum of Natural History) zooms you from the Himalayan mountains, to the orb of planet Earth – through the outer reaches of our solar system to the spiral of the Milky Way galaxy to distant quasars in the depths of space… then reverses course to plunge back toward home.

6
How Big is Space?

This interactive site from the BBC allows you to pilot your rocket ship up through the layers of the atmosphere through the planets, then out to the edge of the solar system, passing the New Horizons and Voyager probes along the way.

7
The Interactive Universe

This site from the History Channel is less extensive than the others listed here, but it provides information as you click to zoom in on the sun, planets, asteroids, comets, nebulae, then on to the Andromeda Galaxy or black holes.

8
100,000 Stars

An interactive 3D visualisation (created for Google Chrome) of our stellar neighbourhood, showing the location and identity of over 100,000 nearby stars. Zoom in to explore.

9
The original Powers of Ten clip

This 1977 film by Charles and Ray Eames begins at a lakeside picnic near Chicago. Starting at a scale of one meter, the film moves outward by a factor of ten every ten seconds, zooming out to Lake Michigan to the globe of the Earth, then on to the solar system, the galaxy, then out the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies… before diving back to our earthbound picnickers and closing in explore inside a single carbon atom. Narrated by the great Phil Morrison, of SETI fame.

10
Times Infinity

This offers an updated look at the size comparisons of the universe, starting with the Planck scale and quantum foam, up to neutrinos, quarks and atoms…. and onward to stars, nebulae, galaxies and superclusters, ending with the Great Wall, the largest structure observed in the universe. Accompanied by gorgeous images and music. 

11
Chronozoom

This open source visual timeline of the universe expands from the Big Bang to the birth of the Milky Way Galaxy to the formation of our planet, then on through Earth’s geological eras… to the prehistory of Earth, the evolution of life and the history of humanity.

12
Here is Today

By progressively clicking, this site (from Luke Twyman) takes you from “Here is Today” to the month, year, century, millennium, epoch, compressing the timeline to reach the geologic period, era, then eon of Earth’s history … and then expands to show the lifespan of the universe.

13
Human Evolution Timeline

This interactive (from the Smithsonian Institution) traverses the milestones in the evolution of humans – through australopithecus, paranthropus, to homo erectus, charting climate change fluctuations along the way.

And a few more amazing sites well worth your time…

14
Historic Spacecraft

This is a comprehensive exploration of space history, with photos, drawings, updates and background information (accumulated by Richard Kruse) – covering space probes, rockets, rovers, launch pads, space suits… plus timelines, size comparisons, cutaway views, history, quotes and more. Truly a wealth of information.

15
Atomic Rockets

‘So You Wanna Build a Rocket?’ is an incredibly detailed website devoted to rocket and spaceship design. The site (from Winchell Chung) offers equations, designs, illustrations, even parts lists, behind rocket drives, space stations, spaceships, spacesuits, weapons and so much more. It has entries on Space Law, world building – and more far-out speculation on aliens and space colonisation. A wonderful resource for authors seeking scientific accuracy – and an aid to getting the science right in science fiction films or stories.

16
Size comparison of Science fictional spaceships

An epic-scale illustration that shows side-by-side images of spacecraft from Star Trek to Star Wars, Dr. Who to Stargate and Starship Troopers. Really fun to explore.

17
Earth Wind Map

This shows up-to-date air and ocean currents across the globe – showing stunning atmospheric circulation patterns. Another site for visualising wind forecasts is Windyty.  See also this collection of beautiful weather maps – providing essential data on our planet. 

18
Deep Space Network

Our Eyes in the Sky: Which spacecraft are phoning home right now? Check out NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) — an international array of radio antennae that communicate with interplanetary space missions. These include antennae in California (Goldstone), Madrid and Canberra. View which antennae  are actively receiving signals, which spacecraft are currently talking to earth.  

19
Space Engine – the universe simulator

This a free space simulation program that enables you to explore the universe, pilot a starship – and land on any planet, moon or asteroid.

21
XKCD’s take on illustrating scale

And finally… the observable universe from top to bottom, showing height above earth’s surface on a logarithmic scale.


Inspired by David Brin’s cosmic list?

Read an exclusive interview with the sci fi legend


What’s so good about this?

All this empty space on a massive scale is more than our brains can conceive of.

A mind-boggling amount can happen within massive lengths of time and space. A drop of water can carve out a canyon. An amoeba can become a dolphin. A star can collapse on itself. We need these tiny stars and planets, otherwise we’d have no point of reference at all; we’d be surrounded by this stuff that our minds weren’t built to understand.

Maps and metaphors lend some perspective on the vastness – and our insignificance in the grand scale of things. It’s good to be humbled and amazed.

Meet the writer

One of the world’s top and most prolific science fiction authors, David Brin is also an astrophysicist who consults widely on tech and social trends and the way the world is going. His 1989 ecological thriller Earth foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and even the world wide web. Remember that 1998 movie, The Postman with Kevin Costner? It was based on David’s post-apocalyptic book that many find ‘strangely optimistic’. Brin’s novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Locus, Campbell, Nebula, and other awards, and now he is developing a series of novels for young adults, trying to bring optimism back into this Hunger Games-infected world. His latest non-fiction book Vivid Tomorrows asks if science fiction can save the world. It already has, he shows. Many times; and it can do that again. Follow @DavidBrin and read his TOPIA features.

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