How high is space?

By Phil Plait | October 18, 2010 2:23 pm

atmosphere_infographicI somehow missed this when it came out, but this picture is but one small part of an amazing 600 x 16500 pixel infographic showing the Earth’s atmosphere to scale! It has a lot of info, including heights of various phenomena like weather, meteors burning up, and aurorae.

It also shows how high various rockets and manned flights have gone, and interesting tidbits about the Earth’s thin shell of air. It’s an amazing and very cool piece of work.

I personally think these infographics are wonderful. They pack a lot of information into a pleasing and engaging format. I hope teachers across the country can print things like this out (though not sure how in this case!) to hang on their classroom walls. When I was a kid I would’ve sat and stared at this for hours.

Tip o’ the Kármán line to NASA_Goddard.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science
MORE ABOUT: atmosphere

Comments (40)

Links to this Post

  1. Astronews Daily (2455489) | October 19, 2010
  1. Adam

    Didn’t xkcd do a similar one?…..ah here we are:

  2. That graphic is filled with win.

    Although 95% of it is below 52,000 ft.

  3. And to add even more perspective, there is the “Logarithmic Map of the Universe,” which illustrates the “height” of various features of the Universe over the surface of the Earth.

  4. bigjohn756

    I know that this an atmospheric diagram, but I would have loved to have them add another half-inch to the bottom to show how rapidly the pressure rises under water.

  5. Kris

    And we should mention the true classic: -

  6. John Baxter

    Having perused that from the top down, I suggest bottom up. Wonderful.

  7. This is very cool! Every classroom needs one, IMO. (And a teacher motivated enough to explain it to the kiddies.)

  8. Jamey

    1) I think you could get Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club’s photo department to print it.

    2) I never knew the rational for the “edge of space”. Makes hella sense, though!

    3) I’ve often wondered if Jules Verne was making a joke when he wrote Around The World In 80 Days, as an orbit of the Earth at sea level, assuming no obstructions, would be about 80 minutes.

  9. Brian

    The problem with trying to print that image is that it would have to be at least 12 feet tall, I think. Assuming you want to be able to comfortably read all of the text while standing in front of it. It might be more practical to do a sideways version of this image, so that it can run along a wall instead of having to fit from floor to ceiling.

  10. Cairnos

    Heh, godzilla ain’t so scary now!

  11. NAW

    Yea, he is tiny compared to all that other stuff.

  12. Michelle R

    …Lol… Godzilla? 😛

  13. Utakata

    I guess a giraffe would of been too small to render, Michelle R @ 12. :(

  14. “When I was a kid I would’ve sat and stared at this for hours.”

    Really? Be honest, how long have you stared it already :)

  15. Sudro

    Godzilla included for scale.

  16. Lovely. Except for a precision nitpick. In the temperature reading, they say 1,000 degrees C (one digit of accuracy) and 1,832 degree F (four digits of accuracy).

  17. Kevin Fairchild

    I teach high school Physics and Earth Science, and tried to figure out how to print out the “Top of the atmosphere to the deepest ocean trench” and failed. I would gladly pay money for this one and the older one for my classroom, if they are available for sale somewhere…

  18. Jeffersonian

    I was thinking there should be low-alt sats in the diagram so I had to quickly check.
    Not enough room, or, rather pointless to stretch to satellite terrain I guess.
    (up to 23,000 miles for geo-synch orbits)

  19. Dennis

    So, I’m not clear on the answer…
    Is anything beyond the Karman line (100km) “space”?
    Towards the top, the chart mentions the “‘exosphere’ also called ‘outer space'” – but it doesn’t mention at what altitude the exosphere begins.

    Is there a distinction between “space” and “outer space”?

  20. Hey all. I’m the Managing Editor for OurAmazingPlanet, the site that originated the graphic. So glad everyone likes it — it’s one of my favorite features on our site. I’ve spent quite some time staring at it myself.

    And to bigjohn756, we do actually have a separate graphic that shows the Earth’s surface from the tallest mountain to the deepest ocean trench, complete with underwater pressure:

  21. Lila

    Yoink! This baby went right to FB share for my nerd minions. Now if only I had my own ginormous color printer. Or a really friggin huge screen. Thx for the awesome find, Phil!

  22. Andrew

    Ok thats awsome. And the Ocean one too! Thanks Andrea! Just bookmarked your site so many trips to come!!!

  23. stan9fos

    It’s the 1992 Godzilla. Important distinction.

  24. Kris

    @17, Kevin Fairchild

    “I would gladly pay money for this one and the older one for my classroom, if they are available for sale somewhere”

    Please find a local printing shop that makes posters, large adverts etc. — they will gladly print one for you (for a fee). If you have trouble finding one, ask some local scientists where they print the conference posters.

  25. Listrade

    And to think, my cycle this weekend would have taken me to the Kármán line if I could only cycle upwards.

  26. hevach

    @23. stan9fos

    It is. The 91-95 Godzilla was 100 meters tall. He was originally only 50 m, but grew to 80 m in the 80’s and then to 100 in the 90’s. Since 1995 he shrank back to 80 m. The 1998 Godzilla’s Japanese version (Zilla) was 90 m, slightly taller but substantially bulkier than the Godzilla he appeared with in Final Wars.

  27. *raises hand for question*

    The (awesome) graphic says the temperature of the Thermosphere is very high, but it won’t heat your skin…could you expand on that? How are the molecules moving so fast with so few in that area?

  28. Chas, PE SE

    When we do student outreach, I ask the kids to imagine a soap bubble an inch in diameter. Then imagine the bubble scaled up to 8,000 miles across. Then I point out that all the life we know about in the entire universe would fit into the soap part — only 10 or so miles thick on the outside of an 8,000 mile diameter ball bearing. Maybe we should take care of that tiny little bit? The scale might be off by a little, but it’s understandable.

  29. Oli

    @16. Jim Seymour: 1,000 is also four digits. Zeroes before the number don’t count, ones after it do.

  30. @Andrew:

    Excellent! Glad you liked the site. We aim to please :)

    Hope to have some more awesome graphics coming up as well.

  31. michael

    here is a video of the amateur balloons altitude mentioned in that picture. Really cool stuff

  32. Matt

    People have climbed to the top of Mt Everest without carrying oxygen so the “Death Zone” ain’t exactly accurate.

  33. RobertC

    Printed fine for me.

    Anyone know where I can buy a 5′ dia magnifying glass?

  34. jfb

    @J Martin:

    Heat and temperature are not the same thing. There are so few molecules in the upper atmosphere per unit volume that it takes very little energy to raise them to a high temperature; thus, there isn’t very much energy in the upper atmosphere to warm your skin.

    The relationship between heat and temperature can be expressed as

    dT = Q / (c * m), where

    dT is the change in temperature,
    c is the specific heat of the material being heated,
    m is the mass of the material being heated, and
    Q is the heat (energy) being added.

    If c and Q are held constant, then as the mass m decreases, the change in temperature dT increases. As you go higher, the mass of a given volume of air decreases (fewer molecules per cubic meter), so for a given amount of energy Q, the energy transferred to each individual molecule increases.

    It’s similar to having an oven at 200 degrees and a pot of water on the stove at 200 degrees. You can stick your hand in the oven for a number of seconds without any ill effects (as long as you don’t touch the rack or the sides). Stick your hand in the water for more than a second and it will be badly burned. It’s not a perfect analogy, since the specific heat of water is much higher than that of air (they have different values for c), so it’s not just a matter of density.

  35. SeanInTX

    Amazing. Just think – geo-sync orbit is 35,786 km! That’s a heck of a ways up into the sky… and the moon is ~380,000km. Those astronauts were a long way from home.

  36. jfb


    That’s one of the bigger hitches against building a space elevator IMO, at least for getting to GEO or beyond. Assuming you could travel the cable at 100 km/hr, it would take you roughly 360 hours to travel from the Earth’s surface to the top, or about 2 weeks. That’d be okay for cargo; not so much for people.

  37. Jason

    “Up from the depths, thirty stories high, breathing fire, his head in the sky, GODZILLA!”

    Thirty stories, that settles it.

  38. @hevach,

    [Godzilla] was originally only 50 m, but grew to 80 m in the 80’s and then to 100 in the 90’s. Since 1995 he shrank back to 80 m.

    So you’re saying that Godzilla took steroids in the 80’s and early 90’s? When will we learn not to hold up giant, fire-breathing monsters as role models simply for their ability to destroy cities full of people whose mouths don’t match up to their words?

  39. Assuming you printed this at 150dpi and 8.5 inches wide (to fit on regular paper in portrait format), it would be about 232 inches or over 19 feet. It would fit on just a hair over 21 sheets of paper.

    Given a typical ceiling height of 8 feet, you could put them on a wall in three columns. (Maybe four if you didn’t want them to be so high that kids couldn’t read the text.)


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