Fifty-five years ago this month, Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin rocketed himself into the history books when he became the first person in space. In a tiny spacecraft called Vostok 1, he made a daredevil two-hour trip around Earth, ending with a hair-raising flight from the ejector seat and a safe parachute landing in a grassy Russian field.
To mark this astronomical anniversary, we’ve put together eight bizarre and unbelievable facts about space – a place of unimaginable size, frightening power, and full of realities we can’t even fathom!
1. Sunny days
The Sun has been shining for nearly five billion years and will probably continue to shine for another five billion. A vast, glowing ball made mostly of super hot hydrogen and helium gas, it’s also pretty enormous…
2. In the thick of it
Neutron stars are the tiniest, densest stars we know of. The material that makes up a neutron star is so dense that a single teaspoonful brought to Earth would weigh more than the entire world population. A football made from neutron star matter would weigh 5 trillion tonnes – about the same as Mount Everest.
3. Home away from home
An exoplanet is a planet outside our Solar System orbiting an ordinary star. Some of these alien worlds are similar to Earth and may even harbour life. With liquid water and a cloudy atmosphere, Kepler-62e is one of the most Earth-like planets known.
4. Not-so-nice noodles
Black holes are among the strangest objects in the universe. The pull of their gravity is so great that nothing can escape from them – not even light.
The gravitational pull of a black hole rises so steeply nearby that an astronaut falling into one would be stretched like spaghetti and torn apart. (Good luck it’s not very likely at the moment – the nearest suspected black hole is 3,000 light years away!)
5. Hello time travel
Speaking of black holes… Einstein’s theory of relativity says that massive objects bend the four combined dimensions of space and time. Some experts have speculated that black holes might warp space-time so much that they could create shortcuts, called wormholes, between different parts of the Universe or different times. But before you start planning your trip to dinosaur times, we have to mention: it’s only a theory! There’s no direct evidence that wormholes exist.
6. Mind your head
The shooting stars we sometimes see streaking across the night sky are not stars at all, but tiny flecks of space rock. Millions of these rock fragments, called meteoroids, hurtle into Earth’s atmosphere every year. Most meteoroids come from the Asteroid Belt or from comets, but a few are chipped off the Moon or Mars by meteorite impacts.
7. Up close and personal
Today’s advanced telescopes allow us to see billions of light years into the far reaches of space. Like eyes, telescopes collect light and focus it to create an image. The bigger a telescope is, the more light it can collect and the sharper the image.
The world’s largest telescope is currently being built on the Cerro Amazones mountain in Chile. Called the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), it’ll be as tall as a fifteen-storey building, and its enormous mirror will gather more light than all thirteen of the world’s current largest telescopes combined.
8. Rock 'n' roll
Millions of rocks known as asteroids hurtle around the inner solar system, most of them in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Large asteroids are very rare – only 26 asteroids are known to be more than 200km wide. However, there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids wider than 1km, and millions of smaller ones.