The evening news this week has treated us to newly recorded images of many objects which, at the time the they were sent to earth, may no longer have existed. In the time taken for light to travel from the as yet unknown end of the universe, stars previously unknown have birthed and died.
Some nights, especially in summer, I sit outside gazing at what we call stars but which are only the light they have sent our way, some of the billions of years ago. And that, dear fellowship of the starquest, is what makes us different from the rest of the animals riding Starship Earth through the heavens. We have, as a species, an insatiable hunger to know what is out there.
It has been an expensive ride. Fourteen nations have pooled resources, at a total cost of nearly $11 billion. We all, though likely for most of us without thinking it is anything special, have seen light become brighter as the source became closer. Imagine the process in reverse. A daunting task for hundreds, probably thousands, of scientists and engineers to figure out as they went along, designing a telescope sensitive enough to detect light that has been traveling billions of years and trillions of miles.
From the images sent back by the James Webb telescope, far away space appears like a mix of colors smeared across a painter’s palette, from which she selects the shades with which to decorate the ceiling of our abode. Amazing to my mortal eyes is the way we can pick out an imagined pattern of spots and name the pattern for an equally imagined character in our human fiction.
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. Watching the light show is like standing in the parking lot watching the opening scenes of a movie that ended last week.
We have moved a step closer to the ability to see ourselves, or at least our planet, 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 which, between its natural components and the junk we humans have parked there is akin to point a camera through a dirty window.
Our own Milky Way appears to we within it as a milky line in the sky, as though a celestial painter had swiped at the celestial canvas after first dragging the brush through her multi-colored palette. The neat part is they and I are looking from the inside of the formation. We are, after all, one of the sparkles comprising the formation.
The Hubble Space Telescope could only see part of the universe, trillions of galaxies far enough away that some of them we can now see forming were created billions of years ago and could well be, by now, dead and disappeared.
And if that is not enough to turn our important selves to insignificance, another galaxy – Andromeda – considerably larger than our Milky Way, is careening toward us at a whopping 250,000 miles per hour. We better get to it; the collision is expected to begin in about 4.5 billion years or so.
Such distances in miles and time are difficult for we mere humans to comprehend. I am reminded of the fellow who climbed a mountain only to discover another mountain. Dinner and a show at the restaurant at the end of the universe seems a long ride, but what a show it promises to be.
Thanks for coming along. Please take a few seconds to share us with your friends, and maybe leave your own thoughts.