Outer space (often simply called space) is the void that exists beyond any celestial body including the Earth. It is not completely empty (i.e. a perfect vacuum), but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, magnetic fields, and neutrinos. Theoretically, it also contains dark matter and dark energy.
In 350 BC, Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that nature abhors a vacuum, a principle that became known as the horror vacui. Based on this idea that a vacuum could not exist, it was widely held for many centuries that space could not be empty. As late as the seventeenth century, the French philospher René Descartes argued that the entirety of space must be filled.
It became known to Galileo Galilei that air had weight and so was subject to gravity. He also demonstrated that there was an established force that resisted the formation of a vacuum. However, it would remain for his pupil Evangelista Torricelli to create an apparatus that would produce a vacuum. At the time this experiment created a scientific sensation in Europe. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal reasoned that if the column of mercury was suspended by air then the column ought to be shorter at higher altitude. His brother in law, Florin Périer, repeated the experiment on the Puy-de-Dôme mountain in central France and found that the column was shorter by three inches. This decrease in pressure was further demonstrated by carrying a half-empty balloon up a mountain and watching it gradually inflate, then deflate upon descent. These and other experiments were used to overthrow the principle of horror vacui.
Further work on the physics of the vacuum was performed by Otto von Guericke. He correctly noted that the atmosphere of the Earth surrounds the planet like a shell, with the density gradually declining with altitude. He concluded that there must be a vacuum between the Earth and the Moon.
Early speculations as to the infinite dimension of space was performed in the sixteenth century by the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno. He extended the Copernican heliocentric cosmology to the concept of an infinite universe that is filled with a substance he called aether, which did not cause resistance to the motions of heavenly bodies. English philosopher William Gilbert arrived at a similar conclusion, arguing that the stars are visible to us only because they are surrounded by a thin aether or a void. This concept of an aether originated with ancient Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, who conceived of it as the medium through which the heavenly bodies moved.
The concept of a universe filled with a luminiferous aether remained in vogue among some scientists up until the twentieth century. This form of aether was viewed as the medium through which light could propagate. In 1887, the Michelson-Morley experiment was carried out as an attempt to detect the Earth's motion through this medium by looking for changes in the speed of light based on the direction of the planet's motion. However, the null result indicated something was wrong with the concept. Since then the idea of the luminiferous aether had essentially been abandoned, to be replaced by Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity. The latter held that the speed of light is a constant in a vacuum, regardless of the observer's motion or frame of reference.
The first professional astronomer to support the concept of an infinite universe was the Englishman Thomas Digges in 1576. However, the true scale of the universe remained unknown until the first successful measurement of the distance to a nearby star was performed in 1838 by the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel. He showed that the star 61 Cygni had a parallax of just 0.31 arcseconds (compared to the modern value of 0.287″). This corresponded to a distance of over 10 light years. The distance scale to the Andromeda galaxy was determined in 1923 by American astronomer Edwin Hubble when he measured the brightness of cepheid variables within that galaxy. This established that the Andromeda galaxy, and by extension all galaxies, lay well outside the Milky Way.
The modern concept of outer space is based upon the Big Bang cosmology, which was first proposed in 1931 by the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître. This theory holds that the observable universe originated from a very compact form that has since undergone continuous expansion. Matter that remained following the initial expansion has since undergone gravitational collapse to create stars, galaxies and other astronomical objects, leaving behind a deep vacuum that forms what is now called outer space.
The term outer space was first recorded by the English poet Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley in her poem "The Maiden of Moscow" in 1842, and also later attested to the writings of HG Wells in 1901. The shorter term space is actually older, first used to mean the region beyond Earth's sky in John Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667.
Outer space is the closest natural approximation of a perfect vacuum. It has effectively no friction, allowing stars, planets and moons to move freely along ideal gravitational trajectories. However, even in the deep vacuum of intergalactic space there are still a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter. For comparison, the air we breathe contains about 1025 molecules per cubic meter. The sparse density of matter in outer space means that electromagnetic radiation can travel great distances without being scattered; the mean free path for a photon in intergalactic space is about 1023 km, or 10 billion light years. The deep vacuum of space could make it an attractive environment for certain industrial processes, for instance those that require ultraclean surfaces.
Stars, planets, asteroids and moons keep their atmospheres by gravitational attraction, and as such, atmospheres have no clearly delineated boundary: the density of atmospheric gas simply decreases with distance from the object. The Earth's atmospheric pressure drops to about 1 Pa at 100 kilometres (62 mi) of altitude. This is known as the Kármán line, a common definition of the boundary with outer space. Beyond this line, isotropic gas pressure rapidly becomes insignificant when compared to radiation pressure from the Sun and the dynamic pressure of the solar wind, so the definition of pressure becomes difficult to interpret. The thermosphere in this range has large gradients of pressure, temperature and composition, and varies greatly due to space weather. Astrophysicists prefer to use number density to describe these environments, in units of particles per cubic centimetre.
All of the observable Universe is filled with photons that were created during the Big Bang, which is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). There is quite likely a correspondingly large number of neutrinos called the cosmic neutrino background. The current black body temperature of this photon radiation is about 3 K (−270 °C; −454 °F). Some regions of outer space can contain highly energetic particles that have a much higher temperature than the CMB.
Contrary to popular belief, a person suddenly exposed to the vacuum would not explode, freeze to death or die from boiling blood. Air would immediately leave the lungs due to the enormous pressure gradient. Any oxygen dissolved in the blood would empty into the lungs to try to equalize the partial pressure gradient. Once the deoxygenated blood arrives at the brain, death would quickly follow.
Humans and animals exposed to vacuum will lose consciousness after a few seconds and die of hypoxia within minutes. Blood and other body fluids do boil when their pressure drops below 6.3 kPa, the vapor pressure of water at body temperature. This condition is called ebullism. The steam may bloat the body to twice its normal size and slow circulation, but tissues are elastic and porous enough to prevent rupture. Ebullism is slowed by the pressure containment of blood vessels, so some blood remains liquid. Swelling and ebullism can be reduced by containment in a flight suit. Shuttle astronauts wear a fitted elastic garment called the Crew Altitude Protection Suit (CAPS) which prevents ebullism at pressures as low as 2 kPa. Water vapor would also rapidly evaporate off from exposed areas such as the lungs, cornea of the eye and mouth, cooling the body. Rapid evaporative cooling of the skin will create frost, particularly in the mouth, but this is not a significant hazard. Space may be cold, but it's mostly vacuum and transfers heat ineffectively; as a result the main temperature regulation concern for space suits is how to get rid of naturally generated body heat.
Cold or oxygen-rich atmospheres can sustain life at pressures much lower than atmospheric, as long as the density of oxygen is similar to that of standard sea-level atmosphere. The colder air temperatures found at altitudes of up to 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) generally compensate for the lower pressures there. Above this altitude, oxygen enrichment is necessary to prevent altitude sickness, and spacesuits are necessary to prevent ebullism above 19 kilometres (12 mi). Most spacesuits use only 20 kPa of pure oxygen, just enough to sustain full consciousness. This pressure is high enough to prevent ebullism, but simple evaporation of blood can still cause decompression sickness and gas embolisms if not managed.
Rapid decompression can be much more dangerous than vacuum exposure itself. Even if the victim does not hold his breath, venting through the windpipe may be too slow to prevent the fatal rupture of the delicate alveoli of the lungs. Eardrums and sinuses may be ruptured by rapid decompression, soft tissues may bruise and seep blood, and the stress of shock will accelerate oxygen consumption leading to hypoxia. Injuries caused by rapid decompression are called barotrauma. A pressure drop as small as 13 kPa, which produces no symptoms if it is gradual, may be fatal if it occurs suddenly.
There is no clear boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space, as the density of the atmosphere gradually decreases as the altitude increases. There are several designated scientific boundaries, namely:
In 2009, scientists at the University of Calgary reported detailed measurements with an instrument called the Supra-Thermal Ion Imager (an instrument that measures the direction and speed of ions), which allowed them to determine that space begins 118 kilometres (73 mi) above Earth. The boundary represents the midpoint of a gradual transition over tens of kilometers from the relatively gentle winds of the Earth's atmosphere to the more violent flows of charged particles in space, which can reach speeds well over 600 miles per hour (1,000 km/h).
This was only the second time that direct measurements of charged particle flows have been conducted at this region, which is too high for balloons and too low for satellites. It was however the first study to include all the relevant elements for this kind of determination – for example, the upper atmospheric winds.
The instrument was carried by the JOULE-II rocket on January 19, 2007, and traveled to an altitude of about 124 miles (200 km). From there it collected data while it was moving through the "edge of space".
The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law. This treaty covers the legal use of outer space by nation states, and includes in its definition of outer space the Moon and other celestial bodies. The treaty states that outer space is free for all nation states to explore and is not subject to claims of national sovereignty. It also prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space. The treaty was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1963 and signed in 1967 by the USSR, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. As of January 1, 2008 the treaty has been signed by 98 states and ratified by an additional 27 states.
Between 1958 and 2008, outer space has been the subject of multiple resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly. Of these, more than 50 have been concerning the international co-operation in the peaceful uses of outer space and preventing an arms race in space. Four additional space law treaties have been negotiated and drafted by the UN's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The 1979 Moon Treaty turned the jurisdiction of all heavenly bodies (including the orbits around such bodies) over to the international community. However, this treaty has not been ratified by any nation that currently practices manned spaceflight.
To perform an orbit, a spacecraft must travel faster than a sub-orbital spaceflight. A spacecraft has not entered orbit until it is traveling with a sufficiently great horizontal velocity such that the acceleration due to gravity on the spacecraft is less than or equal to the centripetal acceleration being caused by its horizontal velocity (see circular motion). So to enter orbit, a spacecraft must not only reach space, but must also achieve a sufficient orbital speed (angular velocity). For a low-Earth orbit, this is about 7,900 m/s (28,400 km/h; 17,700 mph); by contrast, the fastest airplane speed ever achieved (excluding speeds achieved by deorbiting spacecraft) was 2,200 m/s (7,900 km/h; 4,900 mph) in 1967 by the North American X-15.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first person to realize that, given the energy available from any available chemical fuel, a several-stage rocket would be required. The escape velocity to pull free of Earth's gravitational field altogether and move into interplanetary space is about 11,000 m/s (39,600 km/h; 24,600 mph) The energy required to reach velocity for low Earth orbit (32 MJ/kg) is about twenty times the energy required simply to climb to the corresponding altitude (10 kJ/(km·kg)).
There is a major difference between sub-orbital and orbital spaceflights. The minimum altitude for a stable orbit around Earth (that is, one without significant atmospheric drag) begins at around 350 kilometres (220 mi) above mean sea level. A common misunderstanding about the boundary to space is that orbit occurs simply by reaching this altitude. Achieving orbital speed can theoretically occur at any altitude, although atmospheric drag precludes an orbit that is too low. At sufficient speed, an airplane would need a way to keep it from flying off into space, but at present, this speed is several times greater than anything within reasonable technology.
A common misconception is that people in orbit are outside Earth's gravity because they are "floating". They are floating because they are in "free fall": they are accelerating toward Earth, along with their spacecraft, but are simultaneously moving sideways fast enough that the "fall" away from a straight-line path merely keeps them in orbit at a constant distance above Earth's surface. Earth's gravity reaches out far past the Van Allen belt and keeps the Moon in orbit at an average distance of 384,403 kilometres (238,857 mi).
Space is not a perfect vacuum: its different regions are defined by the various atmospheres and "winds" that dominate within them, and extend to the point at which those winds give way to those beyond. Geospace extends from Earth's atmosphere to the outer reaches of Earth's magnetic field, whereupon it gives way to the solar wind of interplanetary space. Interplanetary space extends to the heliopause, whereupon the solar wind gives way to the winds of the interstellar medium. Interstellar space then continues to the edges of the galaxy, where it fades into the intergalactic void.
Geospace is the region of outer space near the Earth. Geospace includes the upper region of the atmosphere, as well as the ionosphere and magnetosphere. The Van Allen radiation belts also lie within the geospace. The region between Earth's atmosphere and the Moon is sometimes referred to as cis-lunar space.
Although it meets the definition of outer space, the atmospheric density within the first few hundred kilometers above the Kármán line is still sufficient to produce significant drag on satellites. Most artificial satellites operate in this region called low earth orbit and must fire their engines every few days to maintain orbit. The drag here is low enough that it could theoretically be overcome by radiation pressure on solar sails, a proposed propulsion system for interplanetary travel.
Geospace is populated by electrically charged particles at very low densities, the motions of which are controlled by the Earth's magnetic field. These plasmas form a medium from which storm-like disturbances powered by the solar wind can drive electrical currents into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
During geomagnetic storms two regions of geospace, the radiation belts and the ionosphere, can become strongly disturbed. These storms increase fluxes of energetic electrons that can permanently damage satellite electronics, disrupting telecommunications and GPS technologies, and can also be a hazard to astronauts, even in low-Earth orbit. They also create aurorae seen near the magnetic poles.
The absence of air makes geospace (and the surface of the Moon) ideal locations for astronomy at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, as evidenced by the spectacular pictures sent back by the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing light from about 13.7 billion years ago — almost to the time of the Big Bang — to be observed.
The outer boundary of geospace is the interface between the magnetosphere and the solar wind. The inner boundary is the ionosphere. Alternately, geospace is the region of space between the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the outermost reaches of the Earth’s magnetic field.
Interplanetary space, the space around the Sun and planets of the Solar System, is the region dominated by the interplanetary medium, which extends out to the heliopause where the influence of the galactic environment starts to dominate over the magnetic field and particle flux from the Sun. Interplanetary space is defined by the solar wind, a continuous stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun that creates a very tenuous atmosphere (the heliosphere) for billions of miles into space. This wind has a particle density of 5–10 protons/cm3 and is moving at a velocity of 350–400 km/s. The distance and strength of the heliopause varies depending on the activity level of the solar wind. The discovery since 1995 of extrasolar planets means that other stars must possess their own interplanetary media.
The volume of interplanetary space is an almost pure vacuum, with a mean free path of about one astronomical unit at the orbital distance of the Earth. However, this space is not completely empty, and is sparsely filled with cosmic rays, which include ionized atomic nuclei and various subatomic particles. There is also gas, plasma and dust, small meteors, and several dozen types of organic molecules discovered to date by microwave spectroscopy.
Interplanetary space contains the magnetic field generated by the Sun. There are also magnetospheres generated by planets such as Jupiter, Saturn and the Earth that have their own magnetic fields. These are shaped by the influence of the solar wind into the approximation of a teardrop shape, with the long tail extending outward behind the planet. These magnetic fields can trap particles from the solar wind and other sources, creating belts of magnetic particles such as the Van Allen Belts. Planets without magnetic fields, such as Venus, Mars and Mercury, have their atmospheres gradually eroded by the solar wind.
Intergalactic space is the physical space between galaxies. Generally free of dust and debris, intergalactic space is very close to a total vacuum. The space between galaxy clusters, called the voids, is probably nearly empty. Some theories put the average density of the Universe as the equivalent of one hydrogen atom per cubic meter. The density of the universe, however, is clearly not uniform; it ranges from relatively high density in galaxies (including very high density in structures within galaxies, such as planets, stars, and black holes) to conditions in vast voids that have much lower density than the universe's average.
Surrounding and stretching between galaxies, there is a rarefied plasma that is thought to possess a cosmic filamentary structure and that is slightly denser than the average density in the universe. This material is called the intergalactic medium (IGM) and is mostly ionized hydrogen; i.e. a plasma consisting of equal numbers of electrons and protons. The IGM is thought to exist at a density of 10 to 100 times the average density of the universe (10 to 100 hydrogen atoms per cubic meter). It reaches densities as high as 1000 times the average density of the universe in rich clusters of galaxies.
The reason the IGM is thought to be mostly ionized gas is that its temperature is thought to be quite high by terrestrial standards (though some parts of it are only "warm" by astrophysical standards). As gas falls into the Intergalactic Medium from the voids, it heats up to temperatures of 105 K to 107 K, which is high enough for the bound electrons to escape from the hydrogen nuclei upon collisions. At these temperatures, it is called the Warm-Hot Intergalactic Medium (WHIM). Computer simulations indicate that on the order of half the atomic matter in the universe might exist in this warm-hot, rarefied state. When gas falls from the filamentary structures of the WHIM into the galaxy clusters at the intersections of the cosmic filaments, it can heat up even more, reaching temperatures of 108 K and above.
This is why scientists say that space is four dimensional.
According to the big bang theory space started as a small point and gradually grew in size. Space is still growing in size today; this mean the distance from the earth to other suns is getting longer.
Gravity can stretch and bend space similar to how a heavy ball placed on a stretched piece of rubber will cause the rubber to stretch. The scientist who discovered that space can bend is named Albert Einstein. How gravity bends space is part of his theory of general relativity.
Exploring space is very difficult because it contains no air, is extremely cold, and is so large that even the fastest ships can only explore a tiny part of it. It takes 3 days of traveling to reach the moon and it would take many years to reach the closest sun.
Space ships are designed to keep air inside of them and to protect astronauts from extreme temperatures.
We gain most of our information about the items inside space from different kinds of telescopes.