All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic
Scientists agree that the universe consists of three distinct parts: everyday visible (or measurable) matter, and two theoretical components called dark matter and dark energy.
These last two are theoretical because they have yet to be directly measured—but even without a full understanding of these mysterious pieces to the puzzle, scientists can infer that the universe’s composition can be broken down as follows:
|Free hydrogen and helium||4%|
Let’s look at each component in more detail.
Dark energy is the theoretical substance that counteracts gravity and causes the rapid expansion of the universe. It is the largest part of the universe’s composition, permeating every corner of the cosmos and dictating how it behaves and how it will eventually end.
Dark matter, on the other hand, has a restrictive force that works closely alongside gravity. It is a sort of “cosmic cement” responsible for holding the universe together. Despite avoiding direct measurement and remaining a mystery, scientists believe it makes up the second largest component of the universe.
Free Hydrogen and Helium
Free hydrogen and helium are elements that are free-floating in space. Despite being the lightest and most abundant elements in the universe, they make up roughly 4% of its total composition.
Stars, Neutrinos, and Heavy Elements
All other hydrogen and helium particles that are not free-floating in space exist in stars.
Stars are one of the most populous things we can see when we look up at the night sky, but they make up less than one percent—roughly 0.5%—of the cosmos.
Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are similar to electrons, but they are nearly weightless and carry no electrical charge. Although they erupt out of every nuclear reaction, they account for roughly 0.3% of the universe.
Heavy elements are all other elements aside from hydrogen and helium.
Elements form in a process called nucleosynthesis, which takes places within stars throughout their lifetimes and during their explosive deaths. Almost everything we see in our material universe is made up of these heavy elements, yet they make up the smallest portion of the universe: a measly 0.03%.
How Do We Measure the Universe?
In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a space observatory called Planck to study the properties of the universe as a whole.
Its main task was to measure the afterglow of the explosive Big Bang that originated the universe 13.8 billion years ago. This afterglow is a special type of radiation called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).
Temperature can tell scientists much about what exists in outer space. When investigating the “microwave sky”, researchers look for fluctuations (called anisotropy) in the temperature of CMBR. Instruments like Planck help reveal the extent of irregularities in CMBR’s temperature, and inform us of different components that make up the universe.
You can see below how the clarity of CMBR changes over time with multiple space missions and more sophisticated instrumentation.
What Else is Out There?
Scientists are still working to understand the properties that make up dark energy and dark matter.
NASA is currently planning a 2027 launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that will hopefully help us in measuring the effects of dark energy and dark matter for the first time.
As for what’s beyond the universe? Scientists aren’t sure.
There are hypotheses that there may be a larger “super universe” that contains us, or we may be a part of one “island” universe set apart from other island multiverses. Unfortunately we aren’t able to measure anything that far yet. Unravelling the mysteries of the deep cosmos, at least for now, remains a local endeavor.
Every Mission to Mars in One Visualization
This graphic shows a timeline of every mission to Mars since 1960, highlighting which ones have been successful and which ones haven’t.
Timeline: A Historical Look at Every Mission to Mars
Within our Solar System, Mars is one of the most similar planets to Earth—both have rocky landscapes, solid outer crusts, and cores made of molten rock.
Because of its similarities to Earth and proximity, humanity has been fascinated by Mars for centuries. In fact, it’s one of the most explored objects in our Solar System.
But just how many missions to Mars have we embarked on, and which of these journeys have been successful? This graphic by Jonathan Letourneau shows a timeline of every mission to Mars since 1960 using NASA’s historical data.
A Timeline of Mars Explorations
According to a historical log from NASA, there have been 48 missions to Mars over the last 60 years. Here’s a breakdown of each mission, and whether or not they were successful:
|1||1960||Korabl 4||USSR (flyby)||Failure|
|2||1960||Korabl 5||USSR (flyby)||Failure|
|3||1962||Korabl 11||USSR (flyby)||Failure|
|4||1962||Mars 1||USSR (flyby)||Failure|
|5||1962||Korabl 13||USSR (flyby)||Failure|
|6||1964||Mariner 3||US (flyby)||Failure|
|7||1964||Mariner 4||US (flyby)||Success|
|8||1964||Zond 2||USSR (flyby)||Failure|
|11||1969||Mariner 6||US (flyby)||Success|
|12||1969||Mariner 7||US (flyby)||Success|
|15||1971||Mars 2 Orbiter/Lander||USSR||Failure|
|16||1971||Mars 3 Orbiter/Lander||USSR||Success/Failure|
|20||1973||Mars 6 Orbiter/Lander||USSR||Success/Failure|
|21||1973||Mars 7 Lander||USSR||Failure|
|22||1975||Viking 1 Orbiter/Lander||US||Success|
|23||1975||Viking 2 Orbiter/Lander||US||Success|
|24||1988||Phobos 1 Orbiter||USSR||Failure|
|25||1988||Phobos 2 Orbiter/Lander||USSR||Failure|
|27||1996||Mars Global Surveyor||US||Success|
|31||1998||Mars Climate Orbiter||US||Failure|
|32||1999||Mars Polar Lander||US||Failure|
|33||1999||Deep Space 2 Probes (2)||US||Failure|
|35||2003||Mars Express Orbiter/Beagle 2 Lander||ESA||Success/Failure|
|36||2003||Mars Exploration Rover - Spirit||US||Success|
|37||2003||Mars Exploration Rover - Opportunity||US||Success|
|38||2005||Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter||US||Success|
|39||2007||Phoenix Mars Lander||US||Success|
|40||2011||Mars Science Laboratory||US||Success|
|42||2013||Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution||US||Success|
|43||2013||Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)||India||Success|
|44||2016||ExoMars Orbiter/Schiaparelli EDL Demo Lander||ESA/Russia||Success/Failure|
|45||2018||Mars InSight Lander||US||Success|
|47||2020||Tianwen-1 Orbiter/Zhurong Rover||China||Success|
|48||2020||Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover||US||Success|
The first mission to Mars was attempted by the Soviets in 1960, with the launch of Korabl 4, also known as Mars 1960A.
As the table above shows, the voyage was unsuccessful. The spacecraft made it 120 km into the air, but its third-stage pumps didn’t generate enough momentum for it to stay in Earth’s orbit.
For the next few years, several more unsuccessful Mars missions were attempted by the USSR and then NASA. Then, in 1964, history was made when NASA launched the Mariner 4 and completed the first-ever successful trip to Mars.
The Mariner 4 didn’t actually land on the planet, but the spacecraft flew by Mars and was able to capture photos, which gave us an up-close glimpse at the planet’s rocky surface.
Then on July 20, 1976, NASA made history again when its spacecraft called Viking 1 touched down on Mars’ surface, making it the first space agency to complete a successful Mars landing. Viking 1 captured panoramic images of the planet’s terrain, and also enabled scientists to monitor the planet’s weather.
Vacation to Mars, Anyone?
To date, all Mars landings have been done without crews, but NASA is planning to send humans to Mars by the late 2030s.
And it’s not just government agencies that are planning missions to Mars—a number of private companies are getting involved, too. Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX has a long-term plan to build an entire city on Mars.
Two other aerospace startups, Impulse and Relativity, also announced an unmanned joint mission to Mars in July 2022, with hopes it could be ready as soon as 2024.
As more players are added to the mix, the pressure is on to be the first company or agency to truly make it to Mars. If (or when) we reach that point, what’s next is anyone’s guess.
Visualized: Which Countries are Dominating Space?
Which countries dominate outer space? This visual displays the number of objects every country has launched into space over time.
Visualized: Which Countries are Dominating Space
Believe it or not, there is a lot of stuff in space. In fact, our atmosphere is filled with more than 11,000 objects that have been launched since the foray into space began.
The Space Race started during the Cold War, and early on the Soviet Union dominated when it came to the amount of devices and objects launched into our atmosphere. But a few years ago, the U.S. took back that title with Elon Musk’s SpaceX helping lead the charge.
This visual, using data from Our World in Data, breaks down the amount of objects launched into space by country over time.
What Gets Launched Into Space?
What are the objects being sent into our atmosphere and why are they so important? Here’s a look at just a few:
- Crewed spacecraft
- Space station flight equipment
Probes and landers like the Mars Rover, for example, have helped scientists explore other planets. Satellites provide us with everyday necessities like cell phone service, far reaching television signals, satellite imagery, and GPS.
As of late 2021, there were around 4,852 operational satellites in orbit—2,944 belonging to the United States. Here’s a quick look at what the U.S. uses its satellites for:
- Commercial: 2,516
- Military: 230
- Government: 168
- Civil: 30
Many satellites in orbit, however, are no longer functional. In fact, there is a lot of junk in space—according to NASA, there are over 27,000 pieces of space debris in orbit.
The Space Race, by Country
The venture into outer space began during the Cold War when the USSR launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957. After this, the U.S. and Soviet Union entered a definitive competition between technological advancements and scientific exploration into space—an extension of the battle between political ideologies.
Few countries have come close in matching either the U.S. or Russia so far. Here’s a look at the cumulative number of objects different countries have launched into orbit and beyond.
|Rank||Country||Cumulative Number of Objects Launched into Space|
|#1||🇺🇸 United States||5,534|
|#12||🇰🇷 South Korea||43|
|#23||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||17|
|#24||🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||17|
|#30||🇳🇿 New Zealand||14|
|#47||🇿🇦 South Africa||5|
|#61||🇰🇵 North Korea||2|
|#63||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||2|
|#72||🇨🇷 Costa Rica||1|
|#79||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||1|
One important disclaimer here is that not all of these countries have orbital launch capabilities, meaning that although the satellite in space may belong to a certain country, that doesn’t mean that it was launched by said country. For example, the UK’s first launch in 1971 was out of Australia and France’s first launch took place in Algeria in 1965.
In total, around 86 countries have attempted some kind of entry into space. However, as of 2022, only 11 countries have the ability to send objects into space using their own launch vehicles, and only three—the U.S., Russia, and China—have ever launched people into outer space.
The Future of Space
With corporations beginning to take the lead in this new frontier, the landscape of space launches is changing. In 2019 Starlink, a constellation of satellites which provides 36 countries with internet access, was launched. With over 2,200 Starlink satellites in the sky and counting, SpaceX’s ultimate goal is global internet coverage; China is planning a similar venture.
Beyond useful satellites and scientific exploration, other potential space industries are emerging.
As one example, the business of commercial space tourism is no longer a futuristic concept. In late 2021, famous billionaire and founder of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson flew briefly into space on a private flight. Jeff Bezos, having founded Blue Origin, followed shortly after.
Today, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration for passenger space travel. However, if you want to be launched into space, it will cost you around $250,000-$500,000.