The universe is a big place. Strictly speaking, it's the biggest place there is. And since so many bits of it are so far away from us, it's hard to get a sense of the overall structure. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has been working hard to detect and measure everything out there it possibly can, and the latest release is a breathtaking 3D map.
The goal of the SDSS is to create a comprehensive spatial, temporal and spectral map showing 1.5 million galaxies over the past seven billion years, along with a couple hundred thousand quasars from up to 12 billion light years away. This is a lot of data, and the hope is that by looking at it all at once, we'll be able to answer some correspondingly big questions, like where all of that mysterious dark matter and dark energy that make up 96% of the universe are hiding.
This particular data release (covering about a third of the portion of the sky visible to the SDSS's dedicated 2.5-meter telescope) features 535,995 newly observed galaxies, 102,100 quasars, and 116,474 stars. Whoa. And this is what it looks like if you fly though it at a quadrillion times the speed of light:
It's essentially impossible for us to wrap our puny little brains around the scale of this video. We're flying past galaxies like they're dandelion seeds, but each one is made up of hundreds of millions of stars, and many of those stars probably have planetary systems of their own. Even if you feel like the probability for life somewhere else in the universe is very, very small, the sheer ginormosity of what we're dealing with virtually assures that somewhere out there, alien life exists.