Zooming In: Visualizing the Relative Size of Particles
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Zooming In: Visualizing the Relative Size of Particles

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Zooming In: Visualizing the Relative Size of Particles

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Lately, the world’s biggest threats have been microscopic in size.

From the global COVID-19 pandemic to wildfires ripping through the U.S. West Coast, it seems as though our lungs can’t catch a break, or more aptly, a breath.

But just how small are the particles we’re currently battling? And how does their size compare to other tiny molecules?

Specks Too Small to See

While the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is relatively small in size, it isn’t the smallest virus particle out there.

Both the Zika virus and the T4 Bacteriophage—responsible for E. coli—are just a fraction of the size, although they have not nearly claimed as many lives as COVID-19 to date.

Coronavirus particles are smaller than both red or white blood cells, however, a single blood cell is still virtually invisible to the naked eye. For scale, we’ve also added in a single human hair as a benchmark on the upper end of the size range.

ParticlesAverage Size (microns, μm)
Zika virus45nm
T4 Bacteriophage225nm
Coronavirus
COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2)
0.1-0.5μm
Bacterium1-3μm
Light dust particle1μm
Dust particle: PM2.5≤2.5μm
Respiratory droplets containing COVID-195-10μm
Red blood cell7-8μm
Dust particle: PM10≤10μm
Pollen grain
15μm
White blood cell25μm
Visibility threshold
(Limit of what the naked eye can see)
10-40μm
Grain of salt60μm
Fine beach sand90μm
Human hair50-180μm

On the other end of the spectrum, pollen, salt, and sand are significantly larger than viruses or bacteria. Because of their higher relative sizes, our body is usually able to block them out—a particle needs to be smaller than 10 microns before it can be inhaled into your respiratory tract.

Because of this, pollen or sand typically get trapped in the nose and throat before they enter our lungs. The smaller particles particles, however, are able to slip through more easily.

Smoky Skies: Air Pollution and Wildfires

While the virus causing COVID-19 is certainly the most topical particle right now, it’s not the only speck that poses a health risk. Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death worldwide—it’s actually deadlier than smoking, malaria, or AIDS.

One major source of air pollution is particulate matter, which can contain dust, dirt, soot, and smoke particles. Averaging around 2.5 microns, these particles can often enter human lungs.

At just a fraction of the size between 0.4-0.7 microns, wildfire smoke poses even more of a health hazard. Research has also linked wildfire exposures to not just respiratory issues, but also cardiovascular and neurological issues.

Here’s an animated map by Flowing Data, showing how things heated up in peak wildfire season between August-September 2020:

What’s the main takeaway from all this?

There are many different kinds of specks that are smaller than the eye can see, and it’s worth knowing how they can impact human health.

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Science

Comparing the Size of The World’s Rockets, Past and Present

This infographic sizes up different rockets used to explore space, from the USSR’s Soyuz to the SpaceX Starship.

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Comparing the Size of The World’s Rockets Share

The Size of The World’s Rockets, Past and Present

The SpaceX Starship might be the next rocket to take humans to the moon, but it won’t be the first, and likely not the last.

Starting in the mid-20th century, humanity has explored space faster than ever before. We’ve launched satellites, telescopes, space stations, and spacecrafts, all strapped to rocket-propelled launch vehicles that helped them breach our atmosphere.

This infographic from designer Tyler Skarbek stacks up the many different rockets of the world side-by-side, showing which country designed them, what years they were used, and what they (could) accomplish.

How Do The World’s Rockets Stack Up?

Before they were used for space travel, rockets were produced and developed to be used as ballistic missiles.

The first rocket to officially reach space—defined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as crossing the Kármán line at 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth’s mean sea level—was the German-produced V-2 rocket in 1944.

But after World War II, V-2 production fell into the hands of the U.S., the Soviet Union (USSR), and the UK.

Over the next few decades and the unfolding of the Cold War, what started as a nuclear arms race of superior ballistic missiles turned into the Space Race. Both the U.S. and the USSR tried to be the first to achieve and master spaceflight, driving production of many new and different rockets.

Origin CountryRocketYears ActivePayload (Range)Success/Failure
GermanyV-21942–1952(Suborbital)2852/950
U.S.Vanguard1957–19599 kg (LEO)3/8
USSRSputnik1957–19641,322 kg (LEO)6/1
U.S.Juno 11958–195811 kg (LEO)3/3
U.S.Juno II1958–196141 kg (LEO)4/6
USSRVostok1958–19914,725 kg (LEO)106/3
U.S.Redstone1960–19611,800 kg (Suborbital)5/1
U.S.Atlas LV-3B1960–19631,360 kg (LEO)7/2
U.S.Atlas-Agena1960–19781,000 kg (LEO)93/16
U.S.Scout1961–1994150 kg (LEO)121/27
USSRVoskhod1963–19765,900 kg (LEO)281/14
U.S.Titan II1964–19663,100 kg (LEO)12/0
Europe (ELDO)Europa1964–1971360 kg (GTO)4/7
FranceDiamant1965–1975160 kg (LEO)9/3
U.S.Atlas E/F1965–2001820 kg (LEO)56/9
USSRSoyuz1965–Present7,100 kg (LEO)1263/44
USSRProton1965–Present23,700 kg (LEO)375/48
U.S.Saturn 1B1966–197521,000 kg (LEO)9/0
U.S.Saturn V1967–197348,600 kg (TLI)13/0
USSRKosmos-3M1967–20101,500 kg (LEO)424/20
UKBlack Arrow1969–1971135 kg (LEO)2/2
U.S.Titan 23B1969–19713,300 kg (LEO)32/1
USSRN11969–197223,500 kg (TLI)0/4
JapanN-11975–19821,200 kg (LEO)6/1
Europe (ESA)Ariane 11976–19861,400 kg (LEO)9/2
USSRTsyklon-31977–20094,100 kg (LEO)114/8
U.S.STS1981–201124,400 kg (LEO)133/2
USSRZenit1985–Present13,740 kg (LEO)71/13
JapanH-I1986–19923,200 kg (LEO)9/0
USSREnergia1987–198888,000 kg (LEO)2/0
IsraelShavit1988–2016800 kg (LEO)8/2
U.S.Titan IV1989–200517,000 kg (LEO)35/4
U.S.Delta II1989–20186,100 kg (LEO)155/2
Europe (ESA)Ariane 41990–20037,600 kg (LEO)113/3
U.S.Pegasus1990–Present443 kg (LEO)39/5
RussiaRokot1990–Present1,950 kg (LEO)31/3
U.S.Atlas II1991–20046,580 kg (LEO)63/0
ChinaLong March 2D1992–Present3,500 kg (LEO)44/1
IndiaPSLV1993–Present3,800 kg (LEO)47/3
JapanH-IIA1994–201815,000 kg (LEO)40/1
Europe (ESA)Ariane 51996–Present10,865 kg (GTO)104/5
BrazilVLS-11997–2003380 kg (LEO)0/2
USSRDnepr-11999–20154,500 kg (LEO)21/1
U.S.Atlas III2000–20058,640 kg (LEO)6/0
JapanM-V2000–20061,800 kg (LEO)6/1
U.S.Minotaur 12000–2013580 kg (LEO)11/0
IndiaGSLV MK12001–20165,000 kg (LEO)6/5
U.S.Atlas V 4002002–Present15,260 kg (LEO)54/1
U.S.Delta IV Medium2003–Present9,420 kg (LEO)20/0
U.S.Delta IV Heavy2004–Present28,790 kg (LEO)12/1
U.S.Falcon 12006–2009180 kg (LEO)2/3
ChinaLong March 4C2006–Present4,200 kg (LEO)26/2
U.S.Atlas V 5002006–Present18,850 kg (LEO)27/0
IranSafir2008–Present65 kg (LEO)4/1
U.S.Minotaur IV2010–Present1,735 kg (LEO)6/0
Europe (ESA)Vega2012–Present1,450 kg (SSO)14/1
U.S.Minotaur V2013–Present532 kg (GTO)1/0
JapanEpsilon2013–Present1,500 kg (LEO)4/0
U.S.Antares2013–Present8,000 kg (LEO)11/1
U.S.Falcon 9 FT2013–Present22,800 kg (LEO)96/0
IndiaGSLV MK32014–Present4,000 kg (GTO)4/0
RussiaAngara 52014–Present13,450 kg (LEO)3/0
U.S.New Shepard2015–Present(Suborbital)14/0
New ZealandElectron2017–Present225 kg (SSO)17/2
U.S.Falcon 9 Heavy2018–Present54,400 kg (LEO)3/0
U.S.Starship2021–Present100,000 kg (LEO)0/0
U.S.SLS2021–Present36,740 kg (TLI)0/0

As the Space Race wound down, the U.S. proved to be the biggest producer of different rockets. The eventual dissolution of the USSR in 1991 transferred production of Soviet rockets to Russia or Ukraine. Then later, both Europe (through the European Space Agency) and Japan ramped up rocket production as well.

More recently, new countries have since joined the race, including China, Iran, and India. Though the above infographic shows many different families of rockets, it doesn’t include all, including China’s Kuaizhou rocket and Iran’s Zuljanah and Qased rockets.

Rocket Range Explained and Continued Space Aspirations

Designing a rocket that can reach far into space while carrying a heavy payload—the objects or entities being carried by a vehicle—is extremely difficult and precise. It’s not called rocket science for nothing.

When rockets are designed, they are are created with one specific range in mind that takes into account the fuel needed to travel and velocity achievable. Alternatively, they have different payload ratings depending on what’s achievable and reliable based on the target range.

  • Suborbital: Reaches outer space, but its trajectory intersects the atmosphere and comes back down. It won’t be able to complete an orbital revolution or reach escape velocity.
  • LEO (Low Earth orbit): Reaches altitude of up to ~2,000 km (1242.74 miles) and orbits the Earth at an orbital period of 128 minutes or less (or 11.25 orbits per day).
  • SSO (Sun-synchronous orbit): Reaches around 600–800 km above Earth in altitude but orbits at an inclination of ~98°, or nearly from pole to pole, in order to keep consistent solar time.
  • GTO (Geosynchronous transfer orbit): Launches into a highly elliptical orbit which gets as close in altitude as LEO and as far away as 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above sea level.
  • TLI (Trans-lunar injection): Launches on a trajectory (or accelerates from Earth orbit) to reach the Moon, an average distance of 384,400 km (238,900 miles) from Earth.

But there are other ranges and orbits in the eyes of potential spacefarers. Mars for example, a lofty target in the eyes of SpaceX and billionaire founder Elon Musk, is between about 54 and 103 million km (34 and 64 million miles) from Earth at its closest approach.

With space exploration becoming more common, and lucrative enough to warrant billion-dollar lawsuits over contract awards, how far will future rockets go?

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Misc

All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic

Our planet supports nearly 8.7 million species. We break down the total composition of the living world in terms of its biomass.

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All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic

Our planet supports approximately 8.7 million species, of which over a quarter live in water.

But humans can have a hard time comprehending numbers this big, so it can be difficult to really appreciate the breadth of this incredible diversity of life on Earth.

In order to fully grasp this scale, we draw from research by Bar-On et al. to break down the total composition of the living world, in terms of its biomass, and where we fit into this picture.

Why Carbon?

A “carbon-based life form” might sound like something out of science fiction, but that’s what we and all other living things are.

Carbon is used in complex molecules and compounds—making it an essential part of our biology. That’s why biomass, or the mass of organisms, is typically measured in terms of carbon makeup.

In our visualization, one cube represents 1 million metric tons of carbon, and every thousand of these cubes is equal to 1 Gigaton (Gt C).

Here’s how the numbers stack up in terms of biomass of life on Earth:

TaxonMass (Gt C)% of total
Plants45082.4%
Bacteria7012.8%
Fungi122.2%
Archaea71.3%
Protists40.70%
Animals2.5890.47%
Viruses0.20.04%
Total545.8100.0%

Plants make up the overwhelming majority of biomass on Earth. There are 320,000 species of plants, and their vital photosynthetic processes keep entire ecosystems from falling apart.

Fungi is the third most abundant type of life—and although 148,000 species of fungi have been identified by scientists, it’s estimated there may be millions more.

Animals: A Drop in the Biomass Ocean

Although animals make up only 0.47% of all biomass, there are many sub-categories within them that are worth exploring further.

TaxonMass (Gt C)% of Animal Biomass
Arthropods (Marine)1.038.6%
Fish0.727.0%
Arthropods (Terrestrial)0.27.7%
Annelids0.27.7%
Mollusks0.27.7%
Livestock0.13.9%
Cnidarians0.13.9%
Humans0.062.3%
Nematodes0.020.8%
Wild mammals0.0070.3%
Wild birds0.0020.1%
Animals (Total)2.589100.0%

Arthropods

Arthropods are the largest group of invertebrates, and include up to 10 million species across insects, arachnids, and crustaceans.

Chordates

The category of chordates includes wild mammals, wild birds, livestock, humans, and fish. Across 65,000 living species in total, nearly half are bony fish like piranhas, salmon, or seahorses.

Surprisingly, humans contribute a relatively small mass compared to the rest of the Animal Kingdom. People make up only 0.01% of all the biomass on the planet.

Annelids, Mollusks, Cnidarians, and Nematodes

Annelids are segmented worms like earthworms or leeches, with over 22,000 living species on this planet. After arthropods, mollusks are the second-largest group of invertebrates with over 85,000 living species. Of these, 80% are snails and slugs.

Cnidarians are a taxon of aquatic invertebrates covering 11,000 species across various marine environments. These include jellyfish, sea anemone, and even corals.

Nematodes are commonly referred to as roundworms. These sturdy critters have successfully adapted to virtually every kind of ecosystem, from polar regions to oceanic trenches. They’ve even survived traveling into space and back.

The Microscopic Rest

Beyond these animals, plants, and fungi, there are an estimated trillion species of microbes invisible to the naked eye—and we’ve probably only discovered 0.001% of them so far.

Bacteria

Bacteria were one of the first life forms to appear on Earth, and classified as prokaryotes (nucleus-less). Today, they’re the second-largest composition of biomass behind plants. Perhaps this is because these organisms can be found living literally everywhere—from your gut to deep in the Earth’s crust.

Researchers at the University of Georgia estimate that there are 5 nonillion bacteria on the planet—that’s a five with 30 zeros after it.

Protists and Archaea

Protists are mostly unicellular, but are more complex than bacteria as they contain a nucleus. They’re also essential components of the food chain.

Archaea are single-celled microorganisms that are similar to bacteria but differ in compositions. They thrive in extreme environments too, from high temperatures above 100°C (212°F) in geysers to extremely saline, acidic, or alkaline conditions.

Viruses

Viruses are the most fascinating category of biomass. They have been described as “organisms at the edge of life,” as they are not technically living things. They’re much smaller than bacteria—however, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, their microscopic effects cannot be understated.

The Earth’s Biomass, Under Threat

Human activities are having an ongoing impact on Earth’s biomass.

For example, we’ve lost significant forest cover in the past decades, to make room for agricultural land use and livestock production. One result of this is that biodiversity in virtually every region is on the decline.

Will we be able to reverse this trajectory and preserve the diversity of all the biomass on Earth, before it’s too late?

Editor’s note: This visualization was inspired by the work of Javier Zarracina for Vox from a few years ago. Our aim with the above piece was to recognize that while great communication needs no reinvention, it can be enhanced and reimagined to increase editorial impact and help spread knowledge to an even greater share of the population.

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