It's actually really easy to think of space as boring. The planets in our own solar system all seem to be empty rocks or balls of gas, and you find a whole lot of nothing before you get to the next star. Meanwhile, Hollywood's most creative minds can't get past populating the place with planets that look a whole lot like Earth (and specifically, parts of California) featuring monsters, rapey aliens or Muppets.
But real space is far, far stranger. You just have to know where to look to find things like ...
Science fiction writers have this annoying thing they do where they can only think of like five different types of planets. You know, there's the ice planets (like Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back) and the forest planets (like in Avatar), desert planets, lava planets, etc.
But scientists have studied almost 700 real planets outside the solar system, and some of them are downright gaudy. Case in point: PSR J1719-1438 b. Planet Fancy isn't having any of that rocky gassy stuff. Because it's straight up made of diamond:
It's a wedding gem worthy of Jesus or the Sultan of Dubai.
How Is This Even Possible?
The universe's biggest showoff actually used to be a star, and sometimes the debris that's left over after the star dies starts a second career as a planet. In this case, Blingworld started off life as one of two parts of a binary star. The larger twin made like a bomb and supernova-ed. What was left behind was a pulsating star, or pulsar, and a white dwarf. The dwarf stabilized just far enough away from its former brother to lose matter to the bully but to keep its carbon core.
What a dick!
Carbon is just a shitload of heat and pressure away from becoming a diamond. On Earth, that happens underground and creates little shiny bits for people to dig up and cram into their jewelry. But in this particular spot in space, the conditions were just right for the entire interior of that former star to harden, crystallize and turn into a planet-sized gem.
Damn it, mankind's single goal should now be to assemble a mission to tow this bastard back to Earth. There's one pawn shop owner who's going to be in for a big fucking surprise.
"Yeah, that's cute. Get your telescope and come with me."
Here's another thing you never see in space movies: water. The Millennium Falcon doesn't have windshield wipers. The Enterprise's huge display screen doesn't get fogged up because they flew through a space cloud. If you saw that in a sci-fi movie (with the pilot all "Damn, I can't see due to all of this space rain!"), you'd laugh your ass off. "Have these people even been to space?"
But, guess what: Scientists have found a big-ass pool of water just floating out there in the cosmos. This massive reservoir of floating space water vapor is in fact the biggest collection of water in the universe that we know of.
With the smallest concentration of child urine.
And when we say "big" we're not talking Pacific Ocean big. We're talking 100,000 times larger than the sun big. This is a vapor cloud so large it holds 140 trillion times more water than all of our oceans.
And you know what that means ... space sharks.
How Is This Even Possible?
As with everything else on this list, scientists are doing a lot of shrugging and guesstimating at what we're actually looking at. After all, the water cloud is 10 billion light-years away, so it's not like the next generation of astronauts are going to be packing their swimming trunks or anything. But they think that what's going on is that there's this massive black hole that's chomping down on everything around it. Instead of spewing out energy like a normal black hole would, the black hole is excreting water vapor. Somehow. They're still figuring it out.
Basically, picture the big black spot as a gaping mouth and the ring of water around as drool, and you get the idea:
And all like, "Duuuuhhhh," because black holes are stupid.
Or, if that image is disturbing, pretend the big black hole in the center is a space water park and the gassy ring around it is the universe's most kickass lazy river.
OK, so you could totally wind up flying your spaceship through a rain cloud. But it's not like flying through a thunderstorm. After all, there's no lightning in space. Right?
Scientists have known for a while that lightning isn't unique to Earth. They've observed lightning on Mars and Saturn. What they didn't know is that lightning could occur in the middle of goddamn space, with a force equal to a trillion lightning bolts, or to use the proper scientific terms, 50 million fucktons of electricity.
Yeah, where's your kite now, Benjamin?
That insane electrical current was discovered near galaxy 3C303. But is this huge electrical current serving as an outlet for God to plug in his blow dryer? No, it's not doing anything that cool ... it's just firing a massive jet of electrified matter 150,000 light-years into outer space.
OK, so maybe referring to this as a lightning storm was underplaying it a bit. Instead, try imagining a single bolt of lightning 50 percent longer than the entire Milky Way galaxy.
Add a skull and the silhouette of a graveyard and you have yourself an '80s metal album cover.
How Is This Even Possible?
Like most cool things in space, this electrical current is caused by a black hole, the prima donna of the universe. Astronomers speculate that a giant black hole in the center of 3C303 has an unusually strong magnetic field, which in turn generates a ridiculous amount of electricity.
Which in turn makes a wicked T-shirt design.
In fact, it's the biggest burst of electrical current ever detected in the universe. Maybe that's how we were able to pick it up from two billion freaking light-years away.
Here's the very first lesson you learned about the cosmos: The sun is hot. Even before you knew what the sun was, or what a star was made of, you knew that.
When you get into the science of it, you realize that you were even more right than you thought: The surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and several thousand times hotter than that at the core. So, yeah, the one thing we know about stars is that you don't ever want to try to land on one, unless you want to instantly burst into flame.
Though you could pretend you were that Nazi guy from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But, scientists have recently discovered that's not always the case. Five months after discovering a star only about 20 degrees hotter than a cup of McDonald's coffee, scientists stumbled across a star they believe is even colder. WISE 1828+2650 is only 80 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning if we ever went there, we could romp around on the surface in a space helmet and shorts.
You could be the first prostitute to work a star.
How is This Even Possible?
WISE 1828+2650 is part of a small group of cold stars known as brown dwarfs. These little buddies begin their lives just like normal stars, but don't have the required mass to take off. In fact, these stars are so small that they don't have enough mass to undergo hydrogen fusion, which in a normal star is what releases all that energy in the form of heat. And yet, these lumps of uselessness are still considered stars because no one has the heart to tell them otherwise.
No, you're doing great, little guy. You're an awesome star because you try!
The hardest part of understanding anything about space is trying to grasp a sense of scale. For instance, if you've seen models of the solar system, none of them really convey how much bigger the sun is than the Earth.
"Y'all ain't shit."
Our sun is 109 times larger than the Earth, and if you lumped the mass of all of the stuff in our solar system together, 99 percent of it would be sun (and that's including that fat cow, Jupiter). In fact, despite what you were told in elementary school, our sun isn't some small chump compared to other stars. To recap, our sun: it's big.
But now imagine a star that is as big compared to the sun as the sun is to the Earth. Now imagine one five times bigger than that. We can't show it to you to scale, because it'd be a big yellow circle and our entire solar system would be too small to even show up as a pixel on your monitor.
That's the star VY Canis Majoris. It's a red hypergiant roughly 1.7 billion miles in diameter, which means it's so big it takes eight hours for its own light to travel from one of its sides to the other.
How Is This Even Possible?
Yes, we said "red hypergiant." Despite that incredibly awesome name, it's just a really big star. Not just big in size, but big in brightness, as in millions of times brighter than our sun.
As for how this particular hypergiant got that big, no one knows. It's so far away (4,900 light-years) that scientists haven't had much chance to study it. But they'd better hop to it, because we only have about 100,000 years before the whole thing BLOWS UP AND KILLS US. (Or just blows up.)
In the realm of size, we don't actually exist.
But when you start talking about truly huge shit in space, it only gets more mind-boggling from there.
We're taught in school that we're all time travelers of sorts. We're told that the sunlight all around us originated over eight minutes ago, and that just by looking up into the sky we're glancing into the past. What you probably didn't know is that as telescopes get stronger, the images that are coming back are getting freakier.
Like this thing:
Via National Geographic
The blob isn't composed of Jell-O (surprise!) but of gas -- we think. And it's fucking huge -- it is a galactic cluster roughly 200 million light-years wide. As in, light from one end would take 200 million years to reach the other.
For comparison, our entire galaxy is only 100,000 light-years across.
And by the way, the light from this thing took roughly 12 billion years to reach our retinas, meaning that it is essentially a chunk of whatever the hell blew off of the Big Bang. To find it, researchers used a specific filter on their telescopes, which was able to detect the core at the center, then the three jellyfishy tentacles extending out into space.
Inside each of those appendages are galaxies and gas bubbles, some 400,000 light-years wide. The galaxies are all clumped together, four times closer to each other than most other galaxies in the universe. All of that is pretty impressive for something with the rather sad scientific name Newfound Blob.
Creativity is not traditionally an astronomer's burden.
If you would like to learn more about some of the more horrific aspects of astronomy, Jacopo asks that you pick up a copy of his latest book, "Go @#$% Yourself!" -- An Ungentlemanly Disagreement, by Filippo Argenti.
For reasons why space isn't all it cracked up to be, check out 6 Reasons Space Travel Will Always Suck and 7 Horrible Ways The Universe Can Destroy Us Without Warning.
Check out The All-New Cracked.com Zombie Page featuring our most popular zombie articles like David Wong's 5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen.
And stop by LinkSTORM to discover why aliens like to probe people.
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