What is the speed of light?

blue and purple beams of light blasting toward the viewer
Light moves faster than anything in the universe, but its speed depends on what it's traveling through. (Image credit: Getty)

The universe has a speed limit, and it's the speed of light. Nothing can travel faster than light — not even our best spacecraft — according to the laws of physics.

So, what is the speed of light? 

Light moves at an incredible 186,000 miles per second (300,000 kilometers per second), equivalent to almost 700 million mph (more than 1 billion km/h). That's fast enough to circumnavigate the globe 7.5 times in one second, while a typical passenger jet would take more than two days to go around once (and that doesn't include stops for fuel or layovers!). 

Light moves so fast that, for much of human history, we thought it traveled instantaneously. As early as the late 1600s, though, scientist Ole Roemer was able to measure the speed of light (usually referred to as c) by using observations of Jupiter's moons, according to Britannica

Around the turn of the 19th century, physicist James Clerk Maxwell created his theories of electromagnetism. Light is itself made up of electric and magnetic fields, so electromagnetism could describe the behavior and motion of light — including its theoretical speed. That value was 299,788 kilometers per second, with a margin of error of plus or minus 30. In the 1970s, physicists used lasers to measure the speed of light with much greater precision, leaving an error of only 0.001. Nowadays, the speed of light is used to define units of length, so its value is fixed; humans have essentially agreed the speed of light is 299,792.458 kilometers per second, exactly.

Light doesn't always have to go so fast, though. Depending on what it's traveling through — air, water, diamonds, etc. — it can slow down. The official speed of light is measured as if it's traveling in a vacuum, a space with no air or anything to get in the way. You can most clearly see differences in the speed of light in something like a prism, where certain energies of light bend more than others, creating a rainbow.

Interestingly, the speed of light is no match for the vast distances of space, which is itself a vacuum. It takes 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach Earth, and a couple years for light from the other closest stars (like Proxima Centauri) to get to our planet. This is why astronomers use the unit light-years — the distance light can travel in one year — to measure vast distances in space.

Because of this universal speed limit, telescopes are essentially time machines. When astronomers look at a star 500 light-years away, they're looking at light from 500 years ago. Light from around 13 billion light-years away (equivalently, 13 billion years ago) shows up as the cosmic microwave background, remnant radiation from the Big Bang in the universe's infancy. The speed of light isn't just a quirk of physics; it has enabled modern astronomy as we know it, and it shapes the way we see the world — literally.

Briley Lewis
Freelance science writer

Briley Lewis (she/her) is a freelance science writer and Ph.D. Candidate/NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Follow her on Twitter @briles_34 or visit her website www.briley-lewis.com.