As technology has evolved, astronomers are able to look back in time to the moments just after the Big Bang. This might seem to imply that the entire universe lies within our view. But the size of the universe depends on a number of things, including its shape and expansion. Just how big is the universe? The truth is, scientists can’t put a number on it.
The observable universe
In 2013, the European Space Agency’s Planck space mission released the most accurate and detailed map ever map of the universe’s oldest light. The map revealed that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. Planck calculated the age by studying the cosmic microwave background.
“The cosmic microwave background light is a traveler from far away and long ago,” Charles Lawrence, the U.S. project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “When it arrives, it tells us about the whole history of our universe.”
Because of the connection between distance and the speed of light, this means scientists can look at a region of space that lies 13.8 billion light-years away. Like a ship in the empty ocean, astronomers on Earth can turn their telescopes to peer 13.8 billion light-years in every direction, which puts Earth inside of an observable sphere with a radius of 13.8 billion light-years. The word “observable” is key; the sphere limits what scientists can see but not what is there.
But though the sphere appears almost 28 billion light-years in diameter, it is far larger. Scientists know that the universe is expanding. Thus, while scientists might see a spot that lay 13.8 billion light-years from Earth at the time of the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand over its lifetime. If inflation occurred at a constant rate through the life of the universe, that same spot is 46 billion light-years away today, making the diameter of the observable universe a sphere around 92 billion light-years. [VIDEO: Oldest Light in the Universe: How it Traveled to Us]
Centering a sphere on Earth’s location in space might seem to put mankind in the center of the universe. However, like that same ship in the ocean, we cannot tell where we lie in the enormous span of the universe. Just because we cannot see land does not mean we are in the center of the ocean; just because we cannot see the edge of the universe does not mean we lie in the center of the universe.
Scientists measure the size of the universe in a myriad of different ways. They can measure the waves from the early universe, known as baryonic acoustic oscillations, that fill the cosmic microwave background. They can also use standard candles, such as type 1A supernovae, to measure distances. However, these different methods of measuring distances can provide answers.
How inflation is changing is also a mystery. While the estimate of 92 billion light-years comes from the idea of a constant rate of inflation, many scientists think that the rate is slowing down. If the universe expanded at the speed of light during inflation, it should be 10^23, or 100 sextillion.
Instead of taking one measurement method, a team of scientists led by Mihran Vardanyan at the University of Oxford did a statistical analysis of all of the results. By using Bayesian model averaging, which focuses on how likely a model is to be correct given the data, rather than asking how well the model itself fits the data. They found that the universe is at least 250 times larger than the observable universe, or at least 7 trillion light-years across.
“That’s big, but actually more tightly constrained that many other models,” according to MIT Technology Review, which first reported the 2011 story.
The shape of the universe
The size of the universe depends a great deal on its shape. Scientists have predicted the possibility that the universe might be closed like a sphere, infinite and negatively curved like a saddle, or flat and infinite.
A finite universe has a finite size that can be measured; this would be the case in a closed spherical universe. But an infinite universe has no size by definition.
According to NASA, scientists know that the universe is flat with only about a 0.4 percent margin of error (as of 2013). And that could change our understanding of just how big the universe is.
“This suggests that the universe is infinite in extent; however, since the universe has a finite age, we can only observe a finite volume of the universe,” NASA says on their website. “All we can truly conclude is that the universe is much larger than the volume we can directly observe.”