12 Discoveries That Changed Our Understanding of the Universe

Man on top of a mountain observing the universe

12 Discoveries That Changed Our Understanding of the Universe

When you think about space, you may think of any number of things. This might include a consideration of the sheer vastness of space or using giant telescopes to try and understand Earth’s place in the universe. There is no question that there are millions of unanswered questions about how the universe began and what life will look like 100, 1000, and 10,000 years from now. 

While many of our questions will continue to remain unanswered, we have still accomplished a lot as Earthlings. There have been some outstanding discoveries that have changed our understanding of the universe as we know it. The good news is that as we learn more we have the opportunity to ask more questions and get closer to answers. 

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some important discoveries that changed our understanding of the universe.

Many Planets

Deep space planets, awesome science fiction wallpaper, cosmic landscape. Elements of this image furnished by NASA
There are believed to be more than 10 billion plants in our solar system.

We have long thought of the universe as somewhat small with just the Earth, the Sun, and a few other planets. As of 2019, what we know now is there is a strong likelihood the Milky Way is composed of billions of Earth-like planets.

The Kepler Space Telescope and Europe’s Gaia mission changed what we know about planet volume. Even with a constant search for life, looking at upwards of 10 billion planets will take some time.

Thousand Years Wait

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant in the constellation of Taurus. Elements of this image furnished by NASA
It’s incredible to think this view is something we can see from millions of years ago.

Back in 1054 CE, we learned from Chinese astronomers that a star in the sky was somehow visible. For several weeks, these astronomers watched the star without knowing what was happening.

Fast forward a thousand years later and it’s now known as the Crab Nebula. A supernova remnant, we have since learned we can see the results of a star exploding over hundreds of years.

Edwin Hubble

The Hubble telescope has provided us with some outstanding views of the deep universe.

Many people will know the Hubble name because of the telescope, but the man was so much more. It was from Edwin Hubble, who was an aspiring astronomer that one of the universe’s greatest discoveries came to fruition.

Up until 1929, the universe’s size was a complete mystery. However, it was Hubble who surmised, through data, that the universe was continuously expanding.

Stars Over Sand

More stars than sand on Earth is a mind-blowing fact.

This might be a familiar story to some, but it was Carl Sagan who created one of the best explanations about the size of space. When Sagan indicated he believed there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on Earth, it blew people’s minds.

As unbelievable as this might be, mathematicians at MIT have proven Sagan’s theory is not just probable, but likely.

Cool to the Touch

Some stars like a brown dwarf might be cool to the touch.

When you think of stars, you are likely thinking of the Sun, which you can definitely not touch. We have been told that stars can be ridiculously hot, far hotter than human touch could tolerate.

However, it’s now believed that some stars like brown dwarfs can be cool to the touch. Some brown dwarfs might even have the same temperature as human skin.

Saturn’s Rings

Saturn’s rings are much smaller than you might have originally considered.

One of the most fascinating aspects of learning about Saturn is its rings. The sixth planet from the Sun, Saturn, and its rings are a staple part of a school curriculum. What’s more surprising is that the rings stretching out over 140,000 km from Saturn’s equator are very thin.

They are so thin it’s believed these rings are only a few hundred meters thick in total. In space, that’s very thin.

Uranus and Neptune

It’s possible millions of years ago that Uranus and Neptune switched places in the Solar System.

Learning about Neptune, you are often told it’s the last planet in our Solar System. Sorry, Pluto. However, it has since been learned that Uranus and Neptune switched places millions of years ago. In 2005, astronomers indicated the belief these planets changed their distance from the Sun.

Colorful Moon

A surprising fact is that the Moon has colors invisible to the human eye.

Looking up at the Moon you might think it’s nothing but gray and dark colors. However, some of the world’s most impressive cameras have determined there are actual colors on the Moon.

Unfortunately, these colors are invisible to the human eye, but blue tints and sandy colors are just some of the color discoveries made by astronomers.

Space Lightning

Space lightning sounds very cool but is also incredibly dangerous if you travel near it.

We all know what lightning looks like on Earth, but it was only recently that scientists learned it can exist in space. Detected near a black hole named Galaxy 3C303, a massive jolt of lighting was discovered.

Occurring because of the black hole’s strong magnetic field, this incident changed how scientists think about lightning entirely.

First Contact

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Scientists believe that we may make first contact with another civilization by 2040.

Scientists using the Kepler telescope predicted first contact as early as 2040. While this is definitely not for certain, it wouldn’t matter much anyway. Even if this event does happen, it would take 4.367 light years for any signal to reach the nearest star system by Earth.

At this rate, any first contact discovery would take 78,000 years to arrive in our Solar System where our current technology could detect anything.

Diamond Planet

It’s wondrous to think there is a planet floating around in space composed entirely of diamonds.

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, planet PSR J1719-1438b is likely to be exactly what every girl wants. Composed entirely of diamonds, or crystalline carbon, this material matches exactly what you might find on Earth.

To be clear, this is a diamond-sized planet just floating around in the universe. If only we could find a way to drag it a little closer.

Mars Has Water

Most people think of Mars as a dead planet but it actually does have some water.

We have long considered Mars to be a barren planet that offers no semblance of life. However, a discovery in 2015 changed all that as NASA announced it had discovered water flowing on the planet.

While water alone isn’t a huge discovery, it’s a massive leap forward in believing Mars could be home to algae and other organisms that need water to survive.

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