Why Is It So Dark in Outer Space?

iStock/blackdovfx
iStock/blackdovfx

by Kenny Hemphill

Interstellar. Gravity. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even Star Wars. They all have one thing in common: Beyond the lights of their spacecrafts, and aside from the faint needlepoint glow of distant stars, space is oil-slick dark.

Why that should be so is a question scientists have been asking for more than 400 years. Everyone from Johannes Kepler to Edmond Halley has had a go at trying to figure it out. But it was German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers who gave his name to the paradox of the dark sky. Olbers wondered: If the universe is infinite, and there are an infinite number of infinitely old stars, why isn't the light from those stars visible from Earth? If it were, the night sky would be bright, not dark.

By the end of the 19th century, the idea of an infinite universe had been largely abandoned—something which was anticipated by Edgar Allan Poe in his 1848 essay, Eureka, where he wrote:

"Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all."

In other words, Olbers' Paradox is resolved with the assumption that the universe has a finite age (something which is supported by the Big Bang Theory), that the speed of light is finite, and thus the observable universe has a horizon beyond which we can't see the stars. Fifty years later, Lord Kelvin used math to prove that in a finite universe, or one in which stars were born and died, the night sky should be dark.

There are other contributing factors to the darkness out there. Cosmic expansion over billions of years means that the energy from the radiation which was emitted following the Big Bang has been red-shifted, or reduced to the low temperature of microwaves. That puts it beyond the visible spectrum. And other radiation in space—infrared and ultra-violet light, radio waves, and X-rays—are all invisible to the human eye. If we could see them, space would seem a little less dark.

Universe Today has another explanation: "Space is black to our perception because there are few molecules of matter that can reflect or scatter light like our atmosphere on Earth. Since light goes in a straight line it seems to be absorbed by the void and vacuum of space. Otherwise space would look similar to the sky on Earth."

Think of a flashlight in a dark room. Look directly at the bulb and you see its light. Point it at furniture or a wall, and you see the light reflected. If there was nothing to reflect it, you wouldn't see any light at all. Which is exactly what happens in space.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?

iStock/Elen11
iStock/Elen11

Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at www.AstroClay.com. For speaking events www.AstronautClayAnderson.com. Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts

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