How Long Is the Drive to the Universe’s Edge?


About 270,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles separate us from the edge of the observable universe.

It will take 480,000,000,000,000,000 — or 4.8 1017 — years, or 35 million times the age of the universe, to get there if you travel at a constant 65 miles per hour.

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This road trip will be hazardous. Not because space matters; we don’t worry about that. Rather, I mean because driving is quite dangerous. In the US, a middle-aged driver experiences one fatal collision for every 100 million miles driven.

The majority of motorists wouldn’t make it past the asteroid belt if a highway were constructed out of the solar system. Truck drivers have a lower per-mile crash rate than other drivers because they are accustomed to traveling long distances on highways, but they are still unlikely to make it to Jupiter.

It would take a lot of fuel to make the trip. A moon-sized sphere of gasoline would be required to travel to the edge of the universe at 33 miles per gallon. (As of 2021, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft had traveled about five billion miles on a budget of about $850 million, or 17 cents per mile, which is roughly equivalent to the price of gas and snacks on a road trip.)

You would go through 30 quintillion oil changes, which would require an engine oil container the size of the Arctic Ocean. Modern gasoline engines can comfortably go two or three times that distance between changes, contrary to an adage that claims you should change your oil every 3,000 miles.

Also required are 1017 tons of snacks. If there aren’t many intergalactic rest stops, your trunk will probably be quite full.

The scenery won’t change much at all, and the journey will be very long. Before you even leave the Milky Way galaxy, the majority of the visible stars will have burned out.

I advise mapping a route that goes past Kepler-1606 if you want to try touching a star that is at room temperature. It will have cooled to a pleasant room temperature when you drive past it in 30 billion years because it is 2,800 light-years away. Although that planet will likely be gone by the time you arrive, it does currently exist.

After the stars fade away, you’ll need to find another form of entertainment. You won’t even make it to the edge of the solar system if you bring every audiobook ever made and every episode of every podcast.

According to the famous estimate made by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the typical person maintains 150 social connections. There have likely been over 100 billion people who have ever lived. A 1017-year road trip would be sufficient to replay each of those individuals’ lives in real-time, creating a sort of unedited documentary. After that, each documentary would be rewatched 150 times, with a different commentary track provided by the 150 experts on the subject.

You would still be less than 1% of the way to the edge of the universe by the time you had finished watching this comprehensive documentary of human perspective, so you would have plenty of time to watch the entire project again — each human life with all 150 commentary tracks — 100 times before you finally arrived.

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