The sky was black, as though a blanket hung over the window, through which random specks of light shone like fairies posed onstage with flashlights before the notes of the opening accompaniment. It was the first night in a while that wasn’t roofed in with thick clouds.
Three huge spotlights marked a triangle against the otherwise black surface.
I never learned to identify the constellations, but I’m pretty sure those individuals were Jupiter, Venus and Mars. What grabs my wonder is thinking about how long it took the light I see to get from its source to my eyes.
From Mars to Earth, a trip at the speed of light takes between four and 24 minutes, depending on the relative positions of both planets as they orbit our sun. If we were looking from here at an explosion on Jupiter, that burst of light would have been a half hour old by the time we saw it.
We have no way of looking into the future, but the past is like a movie theater. We cannot change the script, but we can cruise out a way, then look back and see ourselves lift from the launching pad.
Mom used to quip now and then, as she busily went about preparing for one holiday or the other, that she was so busy she could meet herself on the way back.
We are about to move a step closer to the ability to see ourselves being born.
A few years ago, we launched the Hubble Space Telescope, the better to take a look around without filtering the view through our atmosphere. Among the discoveries were the dual-armed geometry of our own galaxy, as it and its few billion close companions pirouette gracefully and in slow motion through the universe.
I regularly see images posted by other photographers of our own Milky Way. It appears from here as a milky line in the sky as though a celestial painter had swiped at it with a fully loaded brush. The neat part is they and I are looking from the inside of the formation.
We are sashaying around the universe between two spiral-shaped arms of the Milky Way, and the single sun on which we depend for our very existence is only one of several billion in our galaxy.
The Hubble Space Telescope can see only part of the universe, trillions of galaxies far enough away that some of them we can now see forming were formed billions of years ago and could well be, by now, dead and disappeared. Watching the light show is like standing in the parking lot watching the opening scenes of a movie that ended last week.
And if that is not enough to turn our important selves to insignificance, another galaxy – Andromeda – even bigger than our Milky Way is careening toward us at a whopping 250,000 miles per hour. The collision is expected to begin in about 4.5 billion years or so.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Terran generations will pass before the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies will actually start to collide.
Later this month, scientists plan to launch the Webb telescope – 22 December 2021 07:20 EST – that will allow them and future generations of them to see what author Douglas Adams called “the restaurant at the end of the universe.” Tickets are a mite pricey, but what a show!
It’s a situation made for politicians – they know something of major consequence is about to happen, but they won’t be here when it does.
As my mother might have put it, she could see herself coming and going. I am jealous of those young scientists who will get to see the show.
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