Sunday, August 14, 2022

Star power an inspiring sight

A new look at the universe we live in should provide some perspective on the issues we face here on Earth, Steve Wyn-Harris says.

I reckon there is one big story from last week that puts everything else we might fuss about into perspective.

Nasa finally released some long-anticipated pictures from its new James Webb Space Telescope.

There will be those of you like me are equally enthralled and excited, others may be nonplussed about the attention it garnered and it may have passed others by entirely.

I’d like to suggest you give this astonishing achievement another look and further consideration.

As a species we can be cruel, destructive and behave appallingly. Just look at the unnecessary havoc being wreaked upon Ukraine by Putin and his supporters.

But we can also be a remarkable species and an excellent example is this new telescope and the knowledge it will bring to us.

Nasa began planning this project in 1990 and expects to spend US$9.7 billion on it, which is a massive amount of money to learn more about how things began and our small part in it.

However, I’d argue this is a far wiser spend than the US$800b the US pays each year on the military and puts some perspective into the scale of these large figures.

Nasa hasn’t funded and built this on their own though, it has been a partnership between the European Space Agency, nineteen other countries and involvies thousands of people and hundreds of companies, agencies and academic institutions.

There is the sheer brilliance of the construction of this instrument, it’s flawless launch on Christmas Day and the science and physics required to get it into the exact position required for its mission.

It is orbiting the sun in synchrony with the earth but four times further away than our moon.

The telescope has some lofty goals.

It is tasked with seeking out the light of the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. 

It’s going to study galaxy, star and planet formation and on its days off it is going to help us to further understand the origins of life.

The first pictures were released to the media and the world last week and it would be a callous soul that wasn’t moved by the majesty and beauty of those images.

If you haven’t had a good perusal already, they are easy to find online and well worth seeking out.

That first one of a deep field view of the universe gives us a small understanding of the sheer size of the universe. 

The scientists tell us that it is of an area of the sky the size of a grain of sand held at arm length and yet there are thousands of galaxies in just that picture.

Douglas Adams in his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy tried to sum up the immensity of space.

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemists, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

The picture gives a better idea of just how big don’t you think?

They reckon there is somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars in our own galaxy, The Milky Way. 

It’s a bit bigger than an average sized galaxy.

So, looking at that picture of the thousands of galaxies, each with on average billions of stars, gets you thinking about the extremely slim odds that we are the only ones here eh?

Given the vast numbers of suns with planets out there, models using maths and probability show that the universe is likely teeming with life rather than life only existing here on earth or being a rare event.

Some of those galaxies in that view were formed within a billion years of the universe’s formation and closer ones 4.5 billion years ago when our own sun was forming.

That’s much more time than we have had for an intelligent species or two to build their own impressive telescopes and be peering back in our direction.

Perhaps they have also developed the technology to be able to travel among the stars of their own galaxies but even if they have cracked the ability to travel at the speed of light, given we are billions of light years distant, I don’t expect any visits or signals from them any time soon.

The Milky Way itself is 13 billion years old, with suns more than twice the age of our own, so other intelligent life is likely to be within a 100,000 light years of earth, but again those massive distances are hard to breach by any technology we can imagine but who knows?

Maybe we will get a visit one day and then the differences in skin colour, religion, nationality and ethnicity won’t suddenly seem so great.

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