The size of the whole universe is unknown, and it might be infinite in extent. According to the Big Bang theory, the very early Universe was an extremely hot and dense state about 13.8 billion years ago which rapidly expanded. About 380,000 years later the Universe had cooled sufficiently to allow protons and electrons to combine and form hydrogen—the so-called recombination epoch. When this happened, matter and energy became decoupled, allowing photons to travel freely through the continually expanding space. 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. As light has a finite velocity, this theory constrains the size of the directly observable universe.
Estimates put the average energy density of the present day Universe at the equivalent of 5.9 protons per cubic meter, including dark energy, dark matter, and baryonic matter (ordinary matter composed of atoms). The atoms account for only 4.6% of the total energy density, or a density of one proton per four cubic meters. The density of the Universe 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, at least in terms of visible matter. Unlike matter and dark matter, dark energy seems not to be concentrated in galaxies: although dark energy may account for a majority of the mass-energy in the Universe, dark energy's influence is 5 orders of magnitude smaller than the influence of gravity from matter and dark matter within the Milky Way.
Magnetic fields have been detected in the space around just about every class of celestial object. Star formation in spiral galaxies can generate small-scale dynamos, creating turbulent magnetic field strengths of around 5–10 μG. The Davis–Greenstein effect causes elongated dust grains to align themselves with a galaxy's magnetic field, resulting in weak optical polarization. This has been used to show ordered magnetic fields exist in several nearby galaxies. Magneto-hydrodynamic processes in activeelliptical galaxies produce their characteristic jets and radio lobes. Non-thermal radio sources have been detected even among the most distant, high-z sources, indicating the presence of magnetic fields.
Outside a protective atmosphere and magnetic field, there are few obstacles to the passage through space of energetic subatomic particles known as cosmic rays. These particles have energies ranging from about 106eV up to an extreme 1020 eV of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays. The peak flux of cosmic rays occurs at energies of about 109 eV, with approximately 87% protons, 12% helium nuclei and 1% heavier nuclei. In the high energy range, the flux of electrons is only about 1% of that of protons. Cosmic rays can damage electronic components and pose a health threat to space travelers. According to astronauts, like Don Pettit, space has a burned/metallic odor that clings to their suits and equipment, similar to the scent of an arc welding torch.
Despite the harsh environment, several life forms have been found that can withstand extreme space conditions for extended periods. Species of lichen carried on the ESA BIOPAN facility survived exposure for ten days in 2007. Seeds of Arabidopsis thaliana and Nicotiana tabacum germinated after being exposed to space for 1.5 years. A strain of Bacillus subtilis has survived 559 days when exposed to low Earth orbit or a simulated martian environment. The lithopanspermia hypothesis suggests that rocks ejected into outer space from life-harboring planets may successfully transport life forms to another habitable world. A conjecture is that just such a scenario occurred early in the history of the Solar System, with potentially microorganism-bearing rocks being exchanged between Venus, Earth, and Mars.
Even at relatively low altitudes in the Earth's atmosphere, conditions are hostile to the human body. The altitude where atmospheric pressure matches the vapor pressure of water at the temperature of the human body is called the Armstrong line, named after American physician Harry G. Armstrong. It is located at an altitude of around 19.14 km (11.89 mi). At or above the Armstrong line, fluids in the throat and lungs boil away. More specifically, exposed bodily liquids such as saliva, tears, and liquids in the lungs boil away. Hence, at this altitude, human survival requires a pressure suit, or a pressurized capsule.
Out in space, sudden exposure of an unprotected human to very low pressure, such as during a rapid decompression, can cause pulmonary barotrauma—a rupture of the lungs, due to the large pressure differential between inside and outside the chest. Even if the subject's airway is fully open, the flow of air through the windpipe may be too slow to prevent the rupture. Rapid decompression can rupture eardrums and sinuses, bruising and blood seep can occur in soft tissues, and shock can cause an increase in oxygen consumption that leads to hypoxia.
As a consequence of rapid decompression, oxygen dissolved in the blood empties into the lungs to try to equalize the partial pressure gradient. Once the deoxygenated blood arrives at the brain, humans lose consciousness after a few seconds and die of hypoxia within minutes. Blood and other body fluids boil when the pressure drops below 6.3 kPa, and 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 pressure suit. The Crew Altitude Protection Suit (CAPS), a fitted elastic garment designed in the 1960s for astronauts, prevents ebullism at pressures as low as 2 kPa. Supplemental oxygen is needed at 8 km (5 mi) to provide enough oxygen for breathing and to prevent water loss, while above 20 km (12 mi) pressure suits are essential to prevent ebullism. Most space suits use around 30–39 kPa of pure oxygen, about the same as the partial pressure of oxygen at the Earth's surface. This pressure is high enough to prevent ebullism, but evaporation of nitrogen dissolved in the blood could still cause decompression sickness and gas embolisms if not managed.
Humans evolved for life in Earth gravity, and exposure to weightlessness has been shown to have deleterious effects on human health. Initially, more than 50% of astronauts experience space motion sickness. This can cause nausea and vomiting, vertigo, headaches, lethargy, and overall malaise. The duration of space sickness varies, but it typically lasts for 1–3 days, after which the body adjusts to the new environment. Longer-term exposure to weightlessness results in muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton, or spaceflight osteopenia. These effects can be minimized through a regimen of exercise. Other effects include fluid redistribution, slowing of the cardiovascular system, decreased production of red blood cells, balance disorders, and a weakening of the immune system. Lesser symptoms include loss of body mass, nasal congestion, sleep disturbance, and puffiness of the face.
During long-duration space travel, radiation can pose an acute health hazard. Exposure to high-energy, ionizing cosmic rays can result in fatigue, nausea, vomiting, as well as damage to the immune system and changes to the white blood cell count. Over longer durations, symptoms include an increased risk of cancer, plus damage to the eyes, nervous system, lungs and the gastrointestinal tract. On a round-trip Mars mission lasting three years, a large fraction of the cells in an astronaut's body would be traversed and potentially damaged by high energy nuclei. The energy of such particles is significantly diminished by the shielding provided by the walls of a spacecraft and can be further diminished by water containers and other barriers. The impact of the cosmic rays upon the shielding produces additional radiation that can affect the crew. Further research is needed to assess the radiation hazards and determine suitable countermeasures.
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 standard boundary designations, namely:
Up until 2021, the United States designated people who travel above an altitude of 50 mi (80 km) as astronauts.Astronaut wings are now only awarded to spacecraft crew members that "demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety".
NASA's Space Shuttle used 400,000 ft, or 75.76 miles (120 km), as its re-entry altitude (termed the Entry Interface), which roughly marks the boundary where atmospheric drag becomes noticeable, thus beginning the process of switching from steering with thrusters to maneuvering with aerodynamic control surfaces.
In 2009, scientists reported detailed measurements with a Supra-Thermal Ion Imager (an instrument that measures the direction and speed of ions), which allowed them to establish a boundary at 118 km (73.3 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 268 m/s (880 ft/s).
The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework for international space law. It 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, calling outer space the "province of all mankind". This status as a common heritage of mankind has been used, though not without opposition, to enforce the right to access and shared use of outer space for all nations equally, particularly non-spacefaring nations. It prohibits the development 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 2017, 105 state parties have either ratified or acceded to the treaty. An additional 25 states signed the treaty, without ratifying it.
Since 1958, outer space has been the subject of multiple United Nations resolutions. 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. Still, there remains no legal prohibition against deploying conventional weapons in space, and anti-satellite weapons have been successfully tested by the US, USSR, China, and in 2019, India. The 1979 Moon Treaty turned the jurisdiction of all heavenly bodies (including the orbits around such bodies) over to the international community. The treaty has not been ratified by any nation that currently practices human spaceflight.
A spacecraft enters orbit when its centripetalacceleration due to gravity is less than or equal to the centrifugal acceleration due to the horizontal component of its velocity. For a low Earth orbit, this velocity is about 7,800 m/s (28,100 km/h; 17,400 mph); by contrast, the fastest piloted 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.
To achieve an orbit, a spacecraft must travel faster than a sub-orbital spaceflight. The energy required to reach Earth orbital velocity at an altitude of 600 km (370 mi) is about 36 MJ/kg, which is six times the energy needed merely to climb to the corresponding altitude. Spacecraft with a perigee below about 2,000 km (1,200 mi) are subject to drag from the Earth's atmosphere, which decreases the orbital altitude. The rate of orbital decay depends on the satellite's cross-sectional area and mass, as well as variations in the air density of the upper atmosphere. Below about 300 km (190 mi), decay becomes more rapid with lifetimes measured in days. Once a satellite descends to 180 km (110 mi), it has only hours before it vaporizes in the atmosphere. The escape velocity required to pull free of Earth's gravitational field altogether and move into interplanetary space is about 11,200 m/s (40,300 km/h; 25,100 mph).
Space is a partial vacuum: its different regions are defined by the various magnetic fields and "winds" that dominate within them, and extend to the point at which those fields 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 magnetic fields of the interstellar medium. Interstellar space then continues to the outer fringes of the galaxy, where it fades into the intergalactic void.
Geospace is a region of outer space near Earth that includes the upper atmosphere and magnetosphere. The Van Allen radiation belts lie within the geospace. The outer boundary of geospace is the magnetopause, which forms an interface between the Earth's magnetosphere and the solar wind. The inner boundary is the ionosphere. The variable space-weather conditions of geospace are affected by the behavior of the Sun and the solar wind; the subject of geospace is interlinked with heliophysics—the study of the Sun and its impact on the planets of the Solar System.
The day-side magnetopause is compressed by solar-wind pressure—the subsolar distance from the center of the Earth is typically 10 Earth radii. On the night side, the solar wind stretches the magnetosphere to form a magnetotail that sometimes extends out to more than 100–200 Earth radii. For roughly four days of each month, the lunar surface is shielded from the solar wind as the Moon passes through the magnetotail.
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. Geomagnetic storms can disturb two regions of geospace, the radiation belts and the ionosphere. These storms increase fluxes of energetic electrons that can permanently damage satellite electronics, interfering with shortwave radio communication and GPS location and timing. Magnetic storms can also be a hazard to astronauts, even in low Earth orbit. They create aurorae seen at high latitudes in an oval surrounding the geomagnetic poles.
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. This region contains material left over from previous crewed and uncrewed launches that are a potential hazard to spacecraft. Some of this debris re-enters Earth's atmosphere periodically.
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 kilometers into space. This wind has a particle density of 5–10 protons/cm3 and is moving at a velocity of 350–400 km/s (780,000–890,000 mph). Interplanetary space 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. The distance and strength of the heliopause varies depending on the activity level of the solar wind. The heliopause in turn deflects away low-energy galactic cosmic rays, with this modulation effect peaking during solar maximum.
Interplanetary space contains the magnetic field generated by the Sun. There are magnetospheres generated by planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury 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 charged particles such as the Van Allen radiation belts. Planets without magnetic fields, such as Mars, have their atmospheres gradually eroded by the solar wind.
Interstellar space is the physical space within a galaxy beyond the influence each star has upon the encompassed plasma. The contents of interstellar space are called the interstellar medium. Approximately 70% of the mass of the interstellar medium consists of lone hydrogen atoms; most of the remainder consists of helium atoms. This is enriched with trace amounts of heavier atoms formed through stellar nucleosynthesis. These atoms are ejected into the interstellar medium by stellar winds or when evolved stars begin to shed their outer envelopes such as during the formation of a planetary nebula. The cataclysmic explosion of a supernova generates an expanding shock wave consisting of ejected materials that further enrich the medium. The density of matter in the interstellar medium can vary considerably: the average is around 106 particles per m3, but cold molecular clouds can hold 108–1012 per m3.
A number of molecules exist in interstellar space, as can tiny 0.1 μm dust particles. The tally of molecules discovered through radio astronomy is steadily increasing at the rate of about four new species per year. Large regions of higher density matter known as molecular clouds allow chemical reactions to occur, including the formation of organic polyatomic species. Much of this chemistry is driven by collisions. Energetic cosmic rays penetrate the cold, dense clouds and ionize hydrogen and helium, resulting, for example, in the trihydrogen cation. An ionized helium atom can then split relatively abundant carbon monoxide to produce ionized carbon, which in turn can lead to organic chemical reactions.
The local interstellar medium is a region of space within 100 parsecs (pc) of the Sun, which is of interest both for its proximity and for its interaction with the Solar System. This volume nearly coincides with a region of space known as the Local Bubble, which is characterized by a lack of dense, cold clouds. It forms a cavity in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, with dense molecular clouds lying along the borders, such as those in the constellations of Ophiuchus and Taurus. (The actual distance to the border of this cavity varies from 60 to 250 pc or more.) This volume contains about 104–105 stars and the local interstellar gas counterbalances the astrospheres that surround these stars, with the volume of each sphere varying depending on the local density of the interstellar medium. The Local Bubble contains dozens of warm interstellar clouds with temperatures of up to 7,000 K and radii of 0.5–5 pc.
When stars are moving at sufficiently high peculiar velocities, their astrospheres can generate bow shocks as they collide with the interstellar medium. For decades it was assumed that the Sun had a bow shock. In 2012, data from Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) and NASA's Voyager probes showed that the Sun's bow shock does not exist. Instead, these authors argue that a subsonic bow wave defines the transition from the solar wind flow to the interstellar medium. A bow shock is the third boundary of an astrosphere after the termination shock and the astropause (called the heliopause in the Solar System).
Intergalactic space is the physical space between galaxies. Studies of the large-scale distribution of galaxies show that the Universe has a foam-like structure, with groups and clusters of galaxies lying along filaments that occupy about a tenth of the total space. The remainder forms huge voids that are mostly empty of galaxies. Typically, a void spans a distance of 7–30 megaparsecs.
Surrounding and stretching between galaxies, there is a rarefiedplasma that is organized in a galactic filamentary structure. This material is called the intergalactic medium (IGM). The density of the IGM is 5–200 times the average density of the Universe. It consists mostly of ionized hydrogen; i.e. a plasma consisting of equal numbers of electrons and protons. 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 so that collisions between atoms have enough energy to cause the bound electrons to escape from the hydrogen nuclei; this is why the IGM is ionized. At these temperatures, it is called the warm–hot intergalactic medium (WHIM). (Although the plasma is very hot by terrestrial standards, 105 K is often called "warm" in astrophysics.) Computer simulations and observations indicate that up to half of 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 in the so-called intracluster medium (ICM).
In 350 BCE, Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that nature abhors a vacuum, a principle that became known as the horror vacui. This concept built upon a 5th-century BCE ontological argument by the Greek philosopher Parmenides, who denied the possible existence of a void in space. Based on this idea that a vacuum could not exist, in the West it was widely held for many centuries that space could not be empty. As late as the 17th century, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that the entirety of space must be filled.
In ancient China, the 2nd-century astronomer Zhang Heng became convinced that space must be infinite, extending well beyond the mechanism that supported the Sun and the stars. The surviving books of the Hsüan Yeh school said that the heavens were boundless, "empty and void of substance". Likewise, the "sun, moon, and the company of stars float in the empty space, moving or standing still".
The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei knew that air had mass and so was subject to gravity. In 1640, he demonstrated that an established force resisted the formation of a vacuum. It would remain for his pupil Evangelista Torricelli to create an apparatus that would produce a partial vacuum in 1643. This experiment resulted in the first mercury barometer and created a scientific sensation in Europe. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal reasoned that if the column of mercury was supported by air, then the column ought to be shorter at higher altitude where the air pressure is lower. In 1648, 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-full balloon up a mountain and watching it gradually expand, then contract upon descent.
In 1650, German scientist Otto von Guericke constructed the first vacuum pump: a device that would further refute the principle of horror vacui. 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.
Back in the 15th century, German theologian Nicolaus Cusanus speculated that the Universe lacked a center and a circumference. He believed that the Universe, while not infinite, could not be held as finite as it lacked any bounds within which it could be contained. These ideas led to speculations as to the infinite dimension of space by the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno in the 16th century. He extended the Copernican heliocentriccosmology to the concept of an infinite Universe filled with a substance he called aether, which did not resist the motion 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 move.
The concept of a Universe filled with a luminiferous aether retained support among some scientists until the early 20th century. This form of aether was viewed as the medium through which light could propagate. In 1887, the Michelson–Morley experiment tried to detect the Earth's motion through this medium by looking for changes in the speed of light depending on the direction of the planet's motion. The null result indicated something was wrong with the concept. The idea of the luminiferous aether was then abandoned. It was replaced by Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, which holds that the speed of light in a vacuum is a fixed constant, independent 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. But the scale of the Universe remained unknown until the first successful measurement of the distance to a nearby star in 1838 by the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel. He showed that the star system 61 Cygni had a parallax of just 0.31 arcseconds (compared to the modern value of 0.287″). This corresponds to a distance of over 10 light years. In 1917, Heber Curtis noted that novae in spiral nebulae were, on average, 10 magnitudes fainter than galactic novae, suggesting that the former are 100 times further away. The distance to the Andromeda Galaxy was determined in 1923 by American astronomer Edwin Hubble by measuring the brightness of cepheid variables in that galaxy, a new technique discovered by Henrietta Leavitt. This established that the Andromeda galaxy, and by extension all galaxies, lay well outside the Milky Way.
The earliest known estimate of the temperature of outer space was by the Swiss physicist Charles É. Guillaume in 1896. Using the estimated radiation of the background stars, he concluded that space must be heated to a temperature of 5–6 K. British physicist Arthur Eddington made a similar calculation to derive a temperature of 3.18 K in 1926. German physicist Erich Regener used the total measured energy of cosmic rays to estimate an intergalactic temperature of 2.8 K in 1933. American physicists Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman predicted 5 K for the temperature of space in 1948, based on the gradual decrease in background energy following the then-new Big Bang theory. The modern measurement of the cosmic microwave background is about 2.7K.
For most of human history, space was explored by observations made from the Earth's surface—initially with the unaided eye and then with the telescope. Before reliable rocket technology, the closest that humans had come to reaching outer space was through balloon flights. In 1935, the U.S. Explorer II crewed balloon flight reached an altitude of 22 km (14 mi). This was greatly exceeded in 1942 when the third launch of the German A-4 rocket climbed to an altitude of about 80 km (50 mi). In 1957, the uncrewed satellite Sputnik 1 was launched by a Russian R-7 rocket, achieving Earth orbit at an altitude of 215–939 kilometres (134–583 mi). This was followed by the first human spaceflight in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin was sent into orbit on Vostok 1. The first humans to escape low Earth orbit were Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders in 1968 on board the U.S. Apollo 8, which achieved lunar orbit and reached a maximum distance of 377,349 km (234,474 mi) from the Earth.
The first spacecraft to reach escape velocity was the Soviet Luna 1, which performed a fly-by of the Moon in 1959. In 1961, Venera 1 became the first planetary probe. It revealed the presence of the solar wind and performed the first fly-by of Venus, although contact was lost before reaching Venus. The first successful planetary mission was the 1962 fly-by of Venus by Mariner 2. The first fly-by of Mars was by Mariner 4 in 1964. Since that time, uncrewed spacecraft have successfully examined each of the Solar System's planets, as well their moons and many minor planets and comets. They remain a fundamental tool for the exploration of outer space, as well as for observation of the Earth. In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first man-made object to leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space.
Uncrewed spacecraft in Earth orbit are an essential technology of modern civilization. They allow direct monitoring of weather conditions, relay long-range communications like television, provide a means of precise navigation, and allow remote sensing of the Earth. The latter role serves a wide variety of purposes, including tracking soil moisture for agriculture, prediction of water outflow from seasonal snow packs, detection of diseases in plants and trees, and surveillance of military activities.
The deep vacuum of space could make it an attractive environment for certain industrial processes, such as those requiring ultraclean surfaces. Like asteroid mining, space manufacturing would require a large financial investment with little prospect of immediate return. An important factor in the total expense is the high cost of placing mass into Earth orbit: $9,000–$29,000 per kg, according to a 2006 estimate (allowing for inflation since then). The cost of access to space has declined since 2013. Partially reusable rockets such as the Falcon 9 have lowered access to space below 3500 dollars per kilogram. With these new rockets the cost to send materials into space remains prohibitively high for many industries. Proposed concepts for addressing this issue include, fully reusable launch systems, non-rocket spacelaunch, momentum exchange tethers, and space elevators.