A giant hole in the universe: what is the emptiness of the boots?

Artist’s impression of a void in space. Image credit: Golubovy/shutterstock.com

Another week, another space-warping viral message. This time it’s the turn of Barnard 68, which – if the internet is to be believed (which it isn’t) – is “a void in space so large that if you walked through it, you wouldn’t stumble upon nothing for 752,536,988 years”.

While it’s a good idea not to specify a speed (hey, it’s technically true that if you travel a few meters a year, you probably won’t encounter anything in 752,536,988 years), it certainly isn’t.

What you see above is an actual image of the dark nebula Bernard 68, which is so close (400 light-years) that nothing can be seen between it and the Sun, taken by the Observatory’s Very Large Telescope European Southern (ESO) in March 1999. However, it is absolutely stuffed with stars, although you cannot see them when imaging the area using visible light, thanks to the molecular cloud. As the ESO explains, “At these wavelengths, the small cloud is completely opaque due to the obscuring effect of the dust particles inside.”

If you image it in infrared, here are the stars.

An image of Barnard 68. The center - where you would see a void in visible light - is stuffed with stars in infrared.
A composite image of Barnard 68. The center, colored red, shows the area imaged in infrared light. Image credit: ESO

As Francesca Benson of IFLScience said, saying it’s a vacuum in space because you can’t see past the dark nebula is like saying the Sun doesn’t. doesn’t exist because of the clouds.

But fans of big, weird voids in space, don’t despair, because there are plenty of mysteries out there in the endless vastness of the cosmos.

Le Grand Rien: a real void in space

The Boötes Void, often called the Great Nothing or the Great Void, is an actual area of ​​space with fewer galaxies than you might think. With a width of 250 to 330 million light years, it is one of the largest voids we know. To put that into context, that’s about 2% of the diameter of the entire observable universe.

The void was first discovered in 1981, during a redshift study of galaxies. Publishing their results in a paper titled “A million empty megaparsecs in Boötes?”, the astronomers noted that a plausible interpretation of the data they had collected was that the area was “almost devoid of galaxies”.

Slowly astronomers began to find galaxies in the region, and by 1997 about 60 galaxies had been confirmed in the Great Nothing in an area that should contain about 2,000 galaxies (if space were that uniform). Although there is little about the void to suggest that our ideas of galaxy formation are incorrect – one possible explanation is that it formed from smaller voids merging together – it is still an experiment of strange thinking to imagine how someone inside the void must see the universe.

As astronomer Greg Aldering said, “If the Milky Way had been at the center of the Boötes void, we wouldn’t have known there were other galaxies until the 1960s.”

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