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Outer space

The interface between the Earth's surface and outer space. The Kármán line at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) is shown. The layers of the atmosphere are drawn to scale, whereas objects within them, such as the International Space Station, are not.

Outer space, or just space, is the expanse that exists beyond the Earth and between celestial bodies. Outer space is not completely empty—it is a hard vacuum containing a low density of particles, predominantly a plasma of hydrogen and helium as well as electromagnetic radiation, magnetic fields, neutrinos, dust, and cosmic rays. The baseline temperature, as set by the background radiation from the Big Bang, is 2.7 kelvins (−270.45 °C; −454.81 °F). The plasma between galaxies accounts for about half of the baryonic (ordinary) matter in the universe; it has a number density of less than one hydrogen atom per cubic metre and a temperature of millions of kelvins; local concentrations of this plasma have condensed into stars and galaxies. Studies indicate that 90% of the mass in most galaxies is in an unknown form, called dark matter, which interacts with other matter through gravitational but not electromagnetic forces. Observations suggest that the majority of the mass-energy in the observable universe is a poorly understood vacuum energy of space, which astronomers label dark energy. Intergalactic space takes up most of the volume of the Universe, but even galaxies and star systems consist almost entirely of empty space.

Outer space does not begin at a definite altitude above the Earth's surface. However, the Kármán line, at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) above sea level, is conventionally used as the start of outer space in space treaties and for aerospace records keeping. The framework for international space law was established by the Outer Space Treaty, which entered into force on 10 October 1967. This treaty precludes any claims of national sovereignty and permits all states to freely explore outer space. Despite the drafting of UN resolutions for the peaceful uses of outer space, anti-satellite weapons have been tested in Earth orbit.

Humans began the physical exploration of space during the 20th century with the advent of high-altitude balloon flights, followed by manned rocket launches. Earth orbit was first achieved by Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union in 1961, and unmanned spacecraft have since reached all of the known planets in the Solar System. Due to the high cost of getting into space, manned spaceflight has been limited to low Earth orbit and the Moon.

Outer space represents a challenging environment for human exploration because of the dual hazards of vacuum and radiation. Microgravity also has a negative effect on human physiology that causes both muscle atrophy and bone loss. In addition to these health and environmental issues, the economic cost of putting objects, including humans, into space is very high.

Selected article

The Sun photographed by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA 304) of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

The Sun is the spectral type G2V yellow star at the center of our solar system. The Earth and many other bodies (including other planets, asteroids, meteoroids, comets and dust) orbit the Sun, which accounts for more than 99% of the solar system's mass. Different latitudes of the Sun rotate at different rates; a point on the equator takes 25 days, while a point at a pole takes 36 days. The resultant torsion upsets the Sun's very strong magnetic field to create an 11-year solar cycle of activity. Heat and light from the Sun have supported almost all life on Earth. Humans use sunlight to grow crops (see photosynthesis) and power solar cells. The Sun is a ball of plasma with a diameter of 1.392 million km (864,950 mi) and a mass of about 2.0×1030 kg, which is somewhat higher than that of an average star. About 74% of its mass is hydrogen, with 25% helium, and the rest made up of trace quantities of heavier elements. The Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, and is about halfway through its main sequence evolution, during which nuclear fusion reactions in its core fuse hydrogen into helium.

Selected image

Solar eclipse of 11 August 1999
Credit: Luc Viatour

The solar eclipse of August 11, 1999, as seen from France. This was the most viewed total eclipse in human history, although some areas offered impaired visibility due to adverse weather conditions. The path of the Moon's shadow began in the Atlantic Ocean, before traversing Cornwall, northern France, southern Germany, Austria, Hungary and northern Serbia. Its maximum was in Romania, and it continued across the Black Sea, Turkey, Iran, southern Pakistan and India.

Astronomical events

7 SeptemberNeptune at opposition
7 SeptemberComet 21P/Giacobini–Zinner at brightest
8 September, 01:13Moon at perigee
8 September, 22:16Moon occults Mercury
9 September, 18:02New moon
20 September, 00:48Moon at apogee
21 September, 01:54Mercury at superior conjunction
23 September, 01:54Earth at southward equinox
25 September, 02:52Full moon

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