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Although the nucleus of an atom is far too small for us to see, here's one way of thinking about an atomic nucleus: as a cluster of tightly packed "balls". The red "balls" represent protons; the blue "balls" represent neutrons. The cloud of electrons that "orbit" an atom's nucleus and define the "size" of an atom is roughly 100,000 times as large as that atom's nucleus!
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Original artwork by Windows to the Universe staff (Randy Russell).

Atomic Nucleus

Atoms have two main parts: a massive nucleus at the center and a swarm of fast-moving electrons around it. The nucleus is made up of protons and (usually) neutrons. Almost all of the mass (more than 99%) of an atom is in the dense nucleus.

An atomic nucleus is much, much smaller than an atom. The cloud of electrons that "orbit" the nucleus and define the "size" of an atom is about 100,000 times as large as that atom's nucleus! If you made a scale model of an atom with a nucleus the size of a pea, the electrons would zing around in a space larger than a major sports stadium! An atom is mostly empty space.

Last modified July 30, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA