How far away is everybody? Climbing the cosmic distance ladder

We know the universe is vast, but how do we measure the distances between things? Dave Scrimshaw.

Let’s talk numbers for a moment.

The moon is approximately 384,000 kilometres away, and the sun is approximately 150 million kilometres away. The mean distance between Earth and the sun is known as the “astronomical unit” (AU). Neptune, the most distant planet, then, is 30 AU from the sun.

The nearest stars to Earth are 1,000 times more distant, roughly 4.3 light-years away (one light-year being the distance that light travels in 365.25 days – just under 10 trillion kilometres).

The Milky Way galaxy consists of some 300 billion stars in a spiral-shaped disk roughly 100,000 light-years across.

The Andromeda Galaxy, which can be seen with many home telescopes, is 2.54 million light years away. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

At present, the most distant observed galaxy is some 13.2 billion light-years away, formed not long after the Big Bang, 13.75 billion years ago (plus or minus 0.011 billion years).

The scope of the universe was illustrated by the astrophysicist Geraint Lewis in a [recent Conversation article](Lewis2011).

He noted that, if the entire Milky Way galaxy was represented by a small coin one centimetre across, the Andromeda Galaxy would be another small coin 25 centimetres away.

Going by this scale, the observable universe would extend for 5 kilometres in every direction, encompassing some 300 billion galaxies.

But how can scientists possibly calculate these enormous distances with any confidence?


One technique is known as parallax. If you cover one eye and note the position of a nearby object, compared with more distant objects, the nearby object “moves” when you view it with the other eye. This is parallax (see below).