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Visualization of the whole observable universe. The scale is such that the fine grains represent collections of large numbers of superclusters. The Virgo Supercluster
– home of Milky Way – is marked at the center, but is too small to be seen.
×1026 m 8.8(28.5 Gpc or 93 Gly)
|Mass (ordinary matter)
×10−30 g/cm3 (equivalent to 6 9.9protons per cubic meter of space)
±0.021 billion years 13.799
Ordinary (baryonic) matter (4.9%)
Dark matter (26.8%)
Dark energy (68.3%)
The observable universe is a spherical region of the Universe comprising all matter that may be observed from Earth at the present time, because light and other signals from these objects have had time to reach Earth since the beginning of the cosmological expansion. There are at least two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. Assuming the universe is isotropic, the distance to the edge of the observable universe is roughly the same in every direction. That is, the observable universe is a spherical volume (a ball) centered on the observer. Every location in the Universe has its own observable universe, which may or may not overlap with the one centered on Earth.
The word observable used in this sense does not depend on whether modern technology actually permits detection of radiation from an object in this region (or indeed on whether there is any radiation to detect). It simply indicates that it is possible in principle for light or other signals from the object to reach an observer on Earth. In practice, we can see light only from as far back as the time of photon decoupling in the recombination epoch. That is when particles were first able to emit photons that were not quickly re-absorbed by other particles. Before then, the Universe was filled with a plasma that was opaque to photons. The detection of gravitational waves indicates there is now a possibility of detecting non-light signals from before the recombination epoch.
The surface of last scattering is the collection of points in space at the exact distance that photons from the time of photon decoupling just reach us today. These are the photons we detect today as cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). However, with future technology, it may be possible to observe the still older relic neutrino background, or even more distant events via gravitational waves (which also should move at the speed of light). Sometimes astrophysicists distinguish between the visible universe, which includes only signals emitted since recombination – and the observable universe, which includes signals since the beginning of the cosmological expansion (the Big Bang in traditional physical cosmology, the end of the inflationary epoch in modern cosmology). According to calculations, the comoving distance (current proper distance) to particles from which the CMBR was emitted, which represent the radius of the visible universe, is about 14.0 billion parsecs (about 45.7 billion light years), while the comoving distance to the edge of the observable universe is about 14.3 billion parsecs (about 46.6 billion light years), about 2% larger.
- 13.8 billion light-years
- The age of the universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years. While it is commonly understood that nothing can accelerate to velocities equal to or greater than that of light, it is a common misconception that the radius of the observable universe must therefore amount to only 13.8 billion light-years. This reasoning would only make sense if the flat, static Minkowski spacetime conception under special relativity were correct. In the real universe, spacetime is curved in a way that corresponds to the expansion of space, as evidenced by Hubble's law. Distances obtained as the speed of light multiplied by a cosmological time interval have no direct physical significance.
- 15.8 billion light-years
- This is obtained in the same way as the 13.8 billion light year figure, but starting from an incorrect age of the universe that the popular press reported in mid-2006. For an analysis of this claim and the paper that prompted it, see the following reference at the end of this article.
- 27.6 billion light-years
- This is a diameter obtained from the (incorrect) radius of 13.8 billion light-years.
- 78 billion light-years
- In 2003, Cornish et al. found this lower bound for the diameter of the whole universe (not just the observable part), if we postulate that the universe is finite in size due to its having a nontrivial topology, with this lower bound based on the estimated current distance between points that we can see on opposite sides of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). If the whole universe is smaller than this sphere, then light has had time to circumnavigate it since the Big Bang, producing multiple images of distant points in the CMBR, which would show up as patterns of repeating circles. Cornish et al. looked for such an effect at scales of up to 24 gigaparsecs (78 Gly or 7.4×1026 m) and failed to find it, and suggested that if they could extend their search to all possible orientations, they would then "be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter". The authors also estimated that with "lower noise and higher resolution CMB maps (from WMAP's extended mission and from Planck), we will be able to search for smaller circles and extend the limit to ~28 Gpc." This estimate of the maximum lower bound that can be established by future observations corresponds to a radius of 14 gigaparsecs, or around 46 billion light years, about the same as the figure for the radius of the visible universe (whose radius is defined by the CMBR sphere) given in the opening section. A 2012 preprint by most of the same authors as the Cornish et al. paper has extended the current lower bound to a diameter of 98.5% the diameter of the CMBR sphere, or about 26 Gpc.
- 156 billion light-years
- This figure was obtained by doubling 78 billion light-years on the assumption that it is a radius. Because 78 billion light-years is already a diameter (the original paper by Cornish et al. says, "By extending the search to all possible orientations, we will be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter," and 24 Gpc is 78 billion light years), the doubled figure is incorrect. This figure was very widely reported. A press release from Montana State University–Bozeman, where Cornish works as an astrophysicist, noted the error when discussing a story that had appeared in Discover magazine, saying "Discover mistakenly reported that the universe was 156 billion light-years wide, thinking that 78 billion was the radius of the universe instead of its diameter."
- 180 billion light-years
- This estimate combines the erroneous 156-billion-light-year figure with evidence that the M33 Galaxy is actually fifteen percent farther away than previous estimates and that, therefore, the Hubble constant is fifteen percent smaller. The 180-billion figure is obtained by adding 15% to 156 billion light years.
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