We, as human beings, often think about our position in the world and what we are doing to establish it. Are we good employees or bosses? Are we beloved family members? Are we solo explorers or daring creatives?
We always wonder. That wondering has taken us further than any other species on earth by going beyond its borders and exploring the universe around us.
We have seen different star galaxies, and even sent robots to different planets.
But once all the dust has settled, and we look back at all the information that we have collected, you would probably pause to think about something that may have escaped your notice.
That thing is our position in the universe. We have seen thousands of incredible different astronomical phenomena, from black holes to floating nebulae, but what is our position in all that?
And if our position is known to us, is it in one of the numerous floating nebulae that are so prominent when we look through our telescopes?
Well, fear not, friends, for that question is the focus of today’s article, where we look to answer the question of what nebula the earth is in.
What Is A Nebula?
Nebulae are some of the most distinct celestial bodies that exist in space.
They are basically interstellar clouds that are formed out of hydrogen, helium – two components needed to make stars -, cosmic dust, molecular clouds, and even ionized gasses.
These clouds are visible through telescopes and can produce stunning visual displays as they move through the vacuum of space.
Nebulae are normally enormous in size, some taking up areas the size of our solar system and can even be seen with the naked eye, like the Orion Nebula, which is south of Orion’s Belt in the Orion constellation.
However, this does not mean that the nebulae are dense or heavy. A nebula is mostly made up of tiny particles that have formed a clump together, which means the weight of the entire nebula is very small.
This is because of the nature of space and gravity. Places with a natural gravitational pull will have a higher weight and density than areas without.
For example, the earth has a high gravitational pull, therefore most things on earth have quite a large density, if a nebula was the size of earth, then it would still be far less dense, as its gravitational pull is very low.
In fact, if there was a nebula the size of earth it would only weigh a couple of kilograms, rather than the billions of tons the earth weighs.
When the dust and particles in a nebula clump together, they begin to attract other particles to them.
Over time, this clump gathers more and more particles and material, which becomes denser, which makes it attract more particles. Once the clump becomes dense enough, it may pull all this material inward and form a star.
Any material left over from this star making can create either planets or other dense celestial objects, like comets.
Is Earth In A Nebula?
Technically, the earth, our planet, is not in a nebula, but it is in an interstellar cloud. This may be a bit confusing, as all nebulae are interstellar clouds, however not all interstellar clouds are nebulae.
The difference is that a nebula is a distinct and denser body of interstellar clouds, being regularly identifiable by telescopes or the naked eye in the sky at night.
Most interstellar clouds are less dense and more fluid in their composition than nebulae, but that can change over time.
The interstellar cloud that the solar system currently resides in is known as the Local Interstellar Cloud or the Local Fluff. This cloud is absolutely enormous, sitting at a dimension of 30 light years across.
This may not sound like much, but 1 solitary light year is roughly 6 trillion miles and considering the earth is 93 million miles away from the sun, compared to us the size of this cloud is unimaginable.
Although this cloud exudes a heat close to the same level as the sun, due to its low density this heat has a very low capacity to affect anything in a concentrated mass, which is good news for all of us inside it.
A further point to make about this cloud is that we are traveling through it.
This may come as a shock to some, but our solar system is actually traveling through space, moving through the mass of celestial objects and the void itself, which means that it interacts with many different things.
One of those was the local interstellar cloud, which our solar system entered around 10,000 years ago, and it is estimated that it will leave it in another 2000 years.
However, leaving is a loose term, as in fact we will be entering a bigger mass of clouds called G-cloud that borders the LIC (Local Interstellar Cloud).
This cloud is part of the Local Bubble, along with the LIC, a group of interstellar clouds that formed in the wake of a supernova in the past 10 to 20 million years.
So, we are not in a nebula and given the amount of time it takes to move through space, it will take tens of thousands of years to leave the G-cloud. So, our solar system (and planet) will not be in a nebula for a very long time, but we are in something close to it.
What If Earth Was In A Nebula?
Okay, so we don’t exist within a nebula, but what if we did? What would it be like?
Well, not that different really. Looking up at the night sky and seeing nebulae is beautiful, they are gorgeous spectacles that fill our minds with wonder.
But, up close? When we are completely surrounded by them?
Sorry to disappoint you, but very little would change in our night sky, probably nothing. This is again due to their density. When something is compact and dense, it can reflect light better, and nebulae are neither of those things.
A great example would actually be the LIC, that interstellar cloud we exist in.
It may not be a nebula, but it is similar to one in its composition, albeit less dense.
We do not currently notice it when we look up at the sky, as its particles don’t reflect much light away from our earth that is directed by stars or objects that do reflect a great amount of light.
A nebula wouldn’t either, meaning that the current night sky would probably remain unchanged. Well, what about looking at the nebula itself? We could at least do that, right?
Yes and no. Yes, at a different nebula through an extremely expensive telescope. No, with just your eye.
You couldn’t see the beautiful pictures that NASA produces if you were standing at the edge of a nebula looking at it, because the human eye does not see the range of light that a nebula produces.
It would just look like space to you, regrettably. However, even an expensive telescope couldn’t see the nebula up close, as the particles would be too dissipated for the light to reflect off of.
Only at a distance can a nebula be viewed in full glory, and only then with special equipment.
Nebulas are amazing. They are the embryo from which a star is born, and they are the remains after a star has died. Their existence is a cause for great joy and also a reminder of great heartbreak.
We have been able to map events that happened in our universe thanks to their existence, and they have given us some of our most breath-taking photos of space.
One day our solar system may exist inside one, but that is not today, and it won’t be in our lifetimes.
Yet, that should never stop us from dreaming, from looking up at the stars at night and wondering what goes on in the swirling mass of material that makes up a nebula.
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