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Monday, November 19 , 2018, 4:14 pm | Partly Cloudy with Haze 66º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: As the World Turns ... It’s a Lot Faster Than We Think

Gaze high in the western sky this week after dark to find the famous Summer Triangle. Click to view larger
Gaze high in the western sky this week after dark to find the famous Summer Triangle. (Creators.com illustration)

We’ve all had those days when nothing seems to move. No matter where we are — the highway, the line at the grocery store or the ATM machine — everything is at a standstill.

This happens much too frequently for my taste, so on days like this I just wait until nightfall, step outdoors and gaze skyward. But wait. It appears that everything there is motionless, too.

Not so. The fact is that we on Earth are whirling through the cosmos in at least seven different directions at more than 1 million mph. Some of these motions might be familiar to you; others might surprise you.

Our planet, of course, is spinning on its axis and carrying us in middle-northern latitudes at nearly 900 mph.

But that’s nothing compared to how fast we revolve around the sun — at 66,000 mph. At that rate, each one of us traveled some 583 million miles before celebrating our 1st birthday, and nearly 3 billion miles before entering kindergarten. Over an average lifetime, humans will have crossed some 45 billion miles of space.

During the journey, however, our view doesn’t change much. The stars are so distant that they appear to our eyes much like they did to our ancient ancestors.

Gaze high in the western sky this week after dark and you’ll find the famous asterism known as the Summer Triangle, which is composed of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. It is the star Vega toward which our sun and solar system are speeding at roughly 12 miles per second. No need to worry about a collision, though; even at this remarkable speed, we’d need 5,300 human lifetimes to reach the star.

Even our Milky Way galaxy is spinning like a giant Ferris wheel at about 140 miles per second, and we require some 250 million years to complete the 2 million trillion-mile trek around the galactic center — a galactic year, it’s called.

Only two dozen times in the 5 billion-year history of Earth have we passed this way. The last time the first small dinosaurs were beginning to appear. When’s the next? Who knows?

Our Milky Way is also careening at 50 miles per second toward the great Andromeda galaxy, one of some 30 such structures that form a galactic family astronomers call the Local Group — which, by the way, is falling toward the Virgo supercluster at another 150 miles per second.

And if that’s not enough, beyond are even more galaxy superclusters as far as the largest telescopes can see. All seem to be receding from one another, as if hurled from a huge cosmic explosion 14 billion years ago. Between these superclusters glows the faint, ghostly echo of this primordial fireball through which we speed at more than 1 million mph.

And what about the universe itself? Is it turning about an even larger universe? Is it speeding along in some unknown direction at an even more incredible speed? No one knows for sure, but it’s certainly fun to ponder while we wait in yet another seemingly motionless line.

Hey, I’m next! Now where did I put that ATM card anyway?

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

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