Space is often referred to as a cold and dark place. But that is not always true. The temperature of space is dictated by where in space you are located. How space gets hot and cold differs greatly from how we experience it on Earth.
The sun must pass through our atmosphere when it shines on the Earth. It makes the sun’s rays less intense and scatters the heat. It emits accordingly, regulating the earth’s temperature, but the temperature concept is very different in space.
For example, there is technically no temperature in a vacuum-like space because of the lack of molecules to possess heat. However, radiation can transfer heat, which is what stars emit. This radiation loses intensity over distance. That is why Pluto is much colder than Earth.
So if you were facing the Sun outside Earth’s atmosphere, you would heat up quickly. The hotter you became, the more you would radiate heat, like a space heater. You will radiate enough heat to stop warming up when you get hot enough. The shaded side of you would cool slowly because there is no air in space.
Why is space cold?
Space is described as cold because it has a very low temperature, close to absolute zero. Temperature is a property of matter, and matter is extremely sparse in the vacuum of space. Here are a few reasons why space is cold:
Lack of Atmosphere: Space is a vacuum devoid of air and other gases. In Earth’s atmosphere, heat can be transferred through conduction, convection, and radiation. Without an atmosphere, there is no medium to conduct or convect heat, resulting in a lack of thermal energy exchange.
Radiative Cooling: While space is empty, it is not entirely energyless. Stars, including our Sun, emit electromagnetic radiation, mainly in the form of light and heat. However, space is vast, and the radiation from distant celestial bodies is dispersed over large distances. As a result, the radiative heat transfer in space is minimal, leading to an overall low energy density.
Background Radiation: Space also contains what is known as Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, which is residual thermal radiation from the universe’s early stages. The CMB has an average temperature of around 2.7 Kelvin (-270.45°C or -454.81°F). While this temperature is very cold, it is still not as cold as absolute zero.
If observers were in a wholly shaded portion of space, they would not instantly freeze. It would take time for the heat to transfer away from their body because there is no air in space. Also, they would not contact anything because there is technically no temperature coldness in space.
It is comparable to emptiness. Some parts of space are extremely cold, but others are extremely hot. The coldness of space is determined by how close you are to a heat source.
Scientific explanation: Space is mostly fully empty or vacuumed. It can’t move at all. The very diffuse gases and grains drift through the cosmos, whose temperature scientists can measure. Sunlight and starlight might heat those atoms. They will cool back down by radiating heat. The heat will fly out into space with little chance of hitting and heating anything else in that vast emptiness.
On Earth, we lose most of our heat by conduction. The body’s atoms bump into atoms of air or water, passing on that energy. Also, Nature wants to equilibrate where everything wiggles at the same speed. So if you’re warmer than your surroundings, you will lose heat.
- No air or water is in space, so radiation is the only way to lose heat. The atoms release energy directly into space. It is a slow process but continuous.
How cold is space? According to cosmic background explorer satellite data, the space temperature is 2.725 Kelvin. It means 2.725 degrees above absolute zero. If atoms come to a complete stop, they are at absolute zero.
- Space has an average temperature of 2.7 kelvin, about minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit.
This agrees with the temperature predicted from residual radiation after the big bang. It is a refinement of ground-based measurements by Robert Wilson in 1964.
There are four states of matter: Solid, Liquid, Gas, and Plasma. But a fifth ultracold state is attracting much attention: the Bose-Einstein Condensate. It was discovered during the late 20th century and has been the object of intense research ever since. This year, a condensate will make its way to the space station.
They suggested that when certain atoms are cooled to temperatures near zero, they lose their identities and crowd into a single quantum state. To get these atoms super cold, scientists use lasers. Lasers can be tuned so that atoms preferentially absorb photons when they move toward the laser.
Absorbing these laser photons slows down and cools the atoms. Inside a vacuum chamber, an array of laser beams cool a few atoms trapped within a magnetic field to fractions of a degree above absolute zero.
As Einstein predicted, regular physics breaks down when temperatures get this low. This new matter forms something called a superfluid. Superfluids are fluids that have zero viscosity. It means they flow without any friction or resistance. Also, a BEC can behave much like a light wave.
A BEC can overlap and interfere with spontaneously developing a rippled, wavy distribution of atoms. Such wave-like effects are rare among forms of matter. After they release the atoms from their magnetic traps, gravity brings them crashing to the bottom of their vacuum chamber. Scientists want to send BECs to space, where weightlessness gives them more time to perform experiments.
The best way to mimic space’s weightlessness on Earth is by performing experiments during free fall. Some researchers aim to create BEC bubbles, a condensate that wouldn’t be possible back on Earth due to gravity. Other scientists are looking into cooling not atoms but individual molecules.
While the space station is better than Earth for maintaining BECs, vibrations from onboard keep it from being the perfect test bench. In the future, space-based experiments may perform atom interferometry on the BECs.
Chuss, David T., Cosmic Background Explorer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Gupta, Anjali; Galeazzi, M.; Ursino, E. (May 2010), “Detection and Characterization of the Warm-Hot Intergalactic Medium,” Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society.