The Solstice and the Daylight in Charleston and Santiago: Part I — Early December
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You probably know about the December 21 solstice—it is the “winter solstice” in the northern hemisphere, and the “summer solstice” in the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere the December 21 solstice is the shortest day of the year; in the southern hemisphere it is the longest day. But you may not know about certain curious things that take place around the December solstice.

One of those things is that, while in the northern hemisphere the solstice is indeed the shortest day of the year, early December marks the “darkest evening” of the year. That’s right, the earliest sunset occurs right when this blog post appeared: about December 4. After that date the sun starts setting later each night. Indeed, as the graph at right shows, by the time of the solstice there will be several minutes more daylight in the evening than there are right now in early December. (All data in these posts are based on sunrise and sunset times provided by the U.S. Naval Observatory.)

Plot of sunset time (from the U.S. Naval Observatory) vs. date for Charleston, South Carolina, USA. Note that a plot like this will differ for different northern hemisphere cities depending on their latitudes, but the general plot characteristics will be the same.

Plot of sunset time (from the U.S. Naval Observatory) vs. date for Charleston, South Carolina, USA. Note that a plot like this will differ for different northern hemisphere cities depending on their latitudes, but the general plot characteristics will be the same.

Likewise, in the southern hemisphere the solstice is indeed the longest day of the year, but the brightest morning of the year is in early December. By the time the solstice arrives there will be several minutes less of morning daylight than there are right now.

Plot of sunrise time (from the U.S. Naval Observatory) vs. date for Santiago, Chile. Note that a plot like this will differ for different southern hemisphere cities depending on their latitudes, but the general plot characteristics will be the same.

Plot of sunrise time (from the U.S. Naval Observatory) vs. date for Santiago, Chile. Note that a plot like this will differ for different southern hemisphere cities depending on their latitudes, but the general plot characteristics will be the same.

We will get to the explanation for all this in a future post. For now, just observe it. See for yourself that it is true. Keep your eye on the sunset (if you dwell in the northern hemisphere) or on the sunrise (if you dwell in the southern hemisphere). Watch the evening brighten, northerners, even as the shortest day approaches. Watch the morning darken, southerners, even as the longest day approaches. The universe holds surprises for those who are attentive to it.

Stay tuned for more on the solstice in a future post!

 

Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
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This column first ran in The Tablet in December 2006

The reporter from the BBC was shocked that I wasn’t shocked: Could the seeds of life have come to Earth from outer space?

Alan Hildebrand holding a chunk of ice with has within it pieces of the meteorite now known as Tagish Lake, which fell during the winter of 2000 in northern Canada

Alan Hildebrand holding a chunk of ice with has within it pieces of the meteorite now known as Tagish Lake, which fell during the winter of 2000 in northern Canada

He was interviewing me about a new [in 2006] discovery published in Science. In a meteorite retrieved from a frozen lake in northern Canada, researchers found chemical compounds that could be the precursors of life, sitting in small round voids that could have served as the templates for early cells.

Meteorites are my business, and the scientists cited are colleagues and friends of mine, but even so I couldn’t understand why a BBC reporter in London was trying to interview me. The data are new and intriguing, yes, but it’s hardly a new idea. For more than 150 years, meteorites have been known to contain organic chemicals.

“But doesn’t the stuff of life coming to us from off the Earth contradict the Church’s teaching that only Earth is the center of life?” asked the innocent reporter. Apparently he thought we Catholics were still clinging to a medieval, Earth-centered cosmology.

A medieval view of the universe, by Hildegard von Bingen

A medieval view of the universe, by Hildegard von Bingen

Amazed by the number of fallacies embedded in his question, I was struck in particular by his common misconception that the medieval Church, in supporting Aristotle’s geocentric universe, did so in order to place humanity at the Center of the Universe. In fact, as C. S. Lewis describes lucidly in The Discarded Image, the medieval model had humanity not at the centre, but at the bottom of the universe: only one step above hell, with an unbridgeable gap between us and the celestial spheres.

The humanists of the Enlightenment elevated Earth and its residents to a status of “just as good as any other planet.” But in fact, they were far more anthropocentric than the medievals; for example, they rejected any possibility of angels or other higher beings. They adopted as their cosmological principle the assumption of uniformitarianism, that all places and all times in the universe are equally unremarkable. This principle of uniform blandness so denied any possibility of the “remarkable” in nature, that they even disbelieved the notion that meteorites could fall from space and land on Earth. Thomas Jefferson, for one, famously attributed reports of meteorite falls to “the exuberant imagination of a Frenchman.”

It is only in our lifetime that we have truly understood how much the rest of space does impinge on planet Earth. Sunspots affect climate, and solar storms can cause electrical surges and blackouts. Ancient round depressions on Earth are evidence of meteorite impacts; a crashing comet caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and we recognize the real possibility of future catastrophic impacts.

The Earth itself was accreted from meteorites at its birth. More recently, iron meteorites provided the Iron Age with its first working material. In this context we happily accept that the chemicals of life – maybe even living spores themselves – could also have originated off-planet and arrived via meteorite. (My own work shows that cracks in meteorites are just the right size to contain many common microbes.)

We’ve advanced past both medieval and Enlightenment conceptions. Space is no longer an alien place; we’ve been there, ourselves. We know that the cloudy sky over our heads is not an impenetrable barrier sealing us off from the rest of the universe.

But even this is no new idea. It can be found, foreshadowed in every ancient pagan tale of the Avatar, brought to reality in a lowly manger. This Christmas season, we celebrate the arrival on Earth of a different heavenly visitor, just as real as any meteorite but far more shattering. By such arrivals, our own narrow world view is disrupted and we are forced to recognize a universe bigger than our mundane lives. Both natural science and homely religion inform us: the remarkable does occur.

Adoration of the Magi by Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). The Italians have a long tradition of associating a comet with the Star of Bethlehem.

Adoration of the Magi by Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). The Italians have a long tradition of associating a comet with the Star of Bethlehem.

 

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds: Have We Found Planet X?
  12. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  13. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  14. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  15. Across the Universe: Recognition
  16. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  17. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  18. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  19. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  20. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  21. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  22. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  23. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  24. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  25. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  26. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  27. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  28. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  29. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  30. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  31. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  32. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  33. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  34. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  35. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  36. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  37. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  38. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  39. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  40. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  41. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  42. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  43. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  44. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  45. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  46. Across the Universe: Errata
  47. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  48. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  49. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  50. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  51. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  52. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  53. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  54. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  55. Across the Universe: Obedience
  56. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  57. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  58. Across the Universe: Europa
  59. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  60. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  61. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  62. Across the Universe: False Economies
  63. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  64. Across the Universe: Japan
  65. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  66. Across the Universe: Oops!
  67. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  68. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  69. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors

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Copernicus and the “High Seas” (ii)
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2-spheres-aLast week’s blog post was about Copernicus and how he rejected the Two Spheres Theory (TST) regarding the shape of our world—that body we now call Planet Earth.  As discussed in that post, the TST supposed that the world was composed of two spheres of material: an earthy sphere and a water sphere, with the earthy sphere bulging out from the watery sphere as shown at right.

There were a variety of ways by which this was explained.  Copernicus cites one in On the Revolutions—the idea that the earthy sphere has cavities within it, and thus apparently is buoyed by the water sphere.  David Wootton devotes a chapter to the Two Spheres Theory in his 2015 book The Invention of Science,* and notes other ways of explaining the TST.  One of these, he says, was that

...the waters have been displaced from their original position, and their sphere now has a centre other than the centre of the universe.  This view implies that ships sail uphill as they sail out on the ocean.... In 1320 Dante took it to be the standard view....

In other words, if

1) the center of the earthy sphere is the center of the universe, that is, the lowest place in the universe, and
2) the water sphere is off-center to the earthy sphere

then it follows that

3) some points on the water sphere would be farther from the center of the universe—that is, higher—than dry land.  The ocean would be higher than the land.

Points C and B on the ocean are both farther from the center of the universe (in other words, they are higher) than point A on the land.

Points C and B on the ocean are both farther from the center of the universe (in other words, they are higher) than point A on the land.

This serves to explain a natural phenomenon—springs!  Especially big springs!  And extra especially big springs in the middle of the desert or high up on a mountain.  What could feed a big spring that supplies a desert oasis?  There is no rain.  There must be cracks in the earthy sphere that allow water from the ocean to work its way through, water that is under pressure and rises up from the ground owing to the fact that the ocean is higher than the land and water seeks its own level.  Wootton notes that even after the discovery of America and the collapse of the TST (see last week’s post), the idea persisted that the seas are higher than the land.

Left—Illustration of how in the Two Spheres Theory water from the watery sphere feeds springs.  Right—Illustration of how, even under a more modern view in which the world is mostly earthy material with water in ocean basins on its surface, the ocean is supposed to be higher (at F) than the land, and thus feeds springs (at L).  Illustrations from Gaspar Schott’s  Anatomia Physico-Hydrostatica Fontium ac Fluminum of 1663

Left—Illustration of how in the Two Spheres Theory water from the watery sphere feeds springs.  Right—Illustration of how, even under a more modern view in which the world is mostly earthy material with water in ocean basins on its surface, the ocean is supposed to be higher (at F) than the land, and thus feeds springs (at L).  Illustrations from Gaspar Schott’s  Anatomia Physico-Hydrostatica Fontium ac Fluminum of 1663

This idea was something people knew about.  For instance, in the 1688 book Familiar Letters, Domestic and Forren, by James Howell, can be found a letter of April 1, 1617 from James to his brother, in which he writes—

I am newly landed at Amsterdam, and it is the first forren Earth I ever set Foot upon: I was pittifully Sick all the Voyage, for the Weather was rough, and the Wind untoward; and at the mouth of the Texel we were surprised by a furious Tempest…. Having bin so rocked and shaken at Sea, when I came ashore I began to incline to Copernicus his Opinion, which hath got such a sway lately in the World, viz. That the Earth, as well as the rest of her fellow-Elements, is in perpetual Motion; for she seem’d so to me a good while after I had landed. He that observes the site and position of this Country, will never hereafter doubt the truth of that Philosophical Problem which keeps so great a noise in the Schools,* viz. That the Sea is higher than the Earth; because, as I sailed along these Coasts, I visibly found it true; for the Ground here, which is all 'twixt Marsh and Moorish, lies not onely level, but to the apparent sight of the Eye, far lower than the Sea; which made the Duke of Alva say, That the Inhabitants of this Country were the nearest Neighbours to Hell of any People upon Earth, because they dwell lowest.

But if water seeks its own level, what keeps the oceans higher than the lands so that their waters feed the springs?  Why don’t the waters of the ocean flow over the land?  The answer: the hand of God.  That is the subject of next week’s post.


*For the ideas from Wootton’s book cited in this post, see the UK version of the book, pages 113 and 129.  The boldface emphasis in the Howell quote is added.

 

Have You Seen a Satellite?
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Have you ever see a satellite pass overhead? Maybe the International Space Station, or the Hubble Space Telescope?

I was at a friend's home the other day, and mentioned that it was rare for me not to see a satellite during a nighttime observing session - typically within the first half hour. My friend said he'd only seen the International Space Station, once...

I was floored! I mentioned this to my wife, and she pointed out to me what should have been obvious to me: that not everyone spends half hour sessions looking at the sky. (Actually, what she lovingly said was "You're not normal.")

So, with that… there are a LOT of man-made satellites orbiting the Earth; the United States Space Surveillance Network is currently tracking more than 8,000 objects(1). Only seven percent of those objects are operational satellites, the rest is space junk: dead satellites, rocket bodies, and miscellaneous debris.

If you go outside on a clear moonless night, in a relatively dark sky setting, and keep your eyes on the skies for even a short amount of time, it's a fair bet that you'll see a satellite. They appear almost like a jet, travelling slowly across the sky - but there are no blinking lights, and no contrail. They travel from horizon to horizon, sometimes directly overhead, sometimes so low they can barely be seen. Some satellites appear bright and fade to black as they pass into Earth's shadow, while others remain faint their entire trip across the sky. Some satellites flash like a brilliant meteor as sunlight reflects off their solar panels(2); these are always a treat at public observing sessions.

To see a representation of how much stuff is orbiting the Earth, go to: http://stuffin.space:

The Heavens-Above website is a great resource for tracking satellites, and is very useful for planning what will be visible, or figuring out what satellite just passed overhead: http://www.heavens-above.com/  There is also a Heavens-Above Android.app.

The International Space Stationis is by far the biggest and brightest of all the man-made objects orbiting the Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The International Space Station is by far the biggest and brightest of all the man-made objects orbiting the Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

(1) The United States Space Surveillance Network has tracked more than 24,500 space objects orbiting Earth since 1957.
(2) These is known as an Iridium flares: the flares are predictable down to the second.

The Dark, Dark Sky (Part One)
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As a person with a general interest in astronomy, can you still make an observation that makes a profound contribution towards understanding the nature of the universe? Yes, absolutely!
All you need to do is to go out at night and look at the stars (and then step inside and decorate your Christmas tree).

What do you notice? The sky is really dark at night, very dark, and is speckled by stars here and there. As an analogy, imagine stringing a Christmas tree with lights, darkening the room, and then turning on those lights. What would you see? Would it not also be a whole lot of darkness punctuated by a few dozen lights seemingly suspended in space?

Filled with holiday spirit, imagine now stringing the tree with lights, followed by the ceiling, the walls, the floor and the furniture as well. Then when you turned on the lights in darkened room what would you see? Of course you would see only piercingly bright lights and no sign of darkness at all.

So, why do we not see piercingly bright lights at night? After all, a fine first assumption to make is that the universe is infinite in size and has existed for all time. If true, then there should be so many stars in the sky all at different distances and of different ages such that in sum total all those stars filling the infinite universe should appear to fill the whole sky up with starlight.

In this case there would be no darkness at all at night, and our sky would be piercingly bright just like the result of the overzealous Christmas decorator. So again, why is it dark at night? This problem has worried people for centuries, and has come to be known as Olber's Paradox.

In next week’s blog we will see how the simple observational fact that the sky is dark at night will make us test our assumptions that the universe is infinite in extent and age.

Imagining a Small Universe: So… Where Do You Put Two Trillion Galaxies?
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Click on the image to read Nathaniel Scharping's article, The Universe Is 10 times more vast than we thought. Image Credit: Hubble Image NASA/ESA

Click on the Hubble image to read Nathaniel Scharping's article, The Universe is 10 times more vast than we thought. Image Credit: Hubble Image NASA/ESA

How do we make sense of a universe that contains over two trillion galaxies? I have been wrestling with this question since reading Nathaniel Schapring's recent article in Astronomy Magazine, explaining why science now believes there are ten times more galaxies in the universe than previously thought. Using the basic scientific principle of learning by taking big things and breaking them down into small things, I have been looking for an analogy that would help me make sense of a two trillion galaxy universe and, hopefully, find some new insight into how this reality shapes my overall understanding of God's creation and my place in this world.

My first attempt was to think of a finite space like a room or an elevator in which ten times more people were present then previously thought. This analogy bore no fruit. In my desire to find an analogy that evoked a sense of awe and wonder at two trillion galaxies, the end result was an experience of claustrophobia. Needless to say, this analogy did not provide an awe-inspiring view of the universe.

A second attempt at trying to make sense of two trillion galaxies was to compare my debt history with the current national debt of the United States of America. At the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the national debt for the USA was 18.5 trillion dollars. The largest debt I have ever carried was $16,000 when I bout my first car after being ordained to the priesthood. The primary reaction to this analogy was stress, realizing the anxiety I felt signing a piece of paper that intentionally put me in debt. The idea of carrying an 18.5 trillion dollar debt made me feel numb with no practical way of first conceptualizing 18.5 trillion dollars, let alone having to then owe people this amount of money. Needless to say, I felt my ability to create analogies that provided a clear, practical explanation of two trillion galaxies fell a bit flat.

Nevertheless, the one insight that did bear some fruit was the numbing feeling of trying to conceptualize 18.5 trillion of something. To me, the difference between two trillion and eighteen trillion can be easily identified, but nearly impossible to internalize. I think that many people, scientist and non-scientist alike, can struggle with this similar deficiency in our ability to process such an enormous reality. Our attempts to make sense of a two trillion galaxy universe does not create a sense of galactic claustrophobia or unthinkable economic stress, but often awakens an immediate feeling of smallness and insignificant: In a universe so vast that it can contain more than two trillion galaxies, why do I, in my smallness, even matter?

As I have shared in the past, many brilliant minds have embraced this "small view" of our perspective of the universe to argue that humanity is delusional if we think that our lives matter in this vast universe. This reflection, however, presumes an understanding of the universe that is limited to our current perspective of the material world. When looking at other eras of the history of the universe, our perspective would be drastically different, flipping our understanding of "small" and "big."

For example, let us imagine the moment just before the Big Bang. The best science of our day tells us that the universe was a singularity. This leads to a logical question: What is a singularity? Constructing a basic definition based on Google search results yields a layman's answer of a one-dimensional, infinitely small and dense point, in which all of our current understanding of the laws of physics break down. Now, how do I make sense of this as a non-scientist? To be honest, I have an equally difficult time wrapping my brain around an infinitely small singularity and a universe of over two trillion galaxies. All I do know is that at the beginning of the material origins of the known universe there was nothing but small. Nobody would argue that the singularity that has expanded into our current universe was insignificant. Therefore, if small things mattered at our universe's material beginnings, why would they no longer matter now that this small galactic "seed" has expanding and bore the "fruit" of over two trillion galaxies? Perhaps a better way to view the universe is not as something unthinkably big with a bunch of annoying, meaningless small things, but instead a vast collect of small, essential things that remind us of our small origins.

All of this, of course, presumes that our understanding of "small" and "big" really matter when understanding the universe. Just as our understanding of "up" and "down" have no real meaning once you leave our planet, does "small" and "big" simply represent our ability to make spatial sense of the universe based on our subjective experience? Are there other perspectives that are not contingent upon limiting terms like "small" and "big" that would broaden our language about the universe and our place in it? Physics may very well have a good answer to the "small/big" problem I am exploring, but I am not a physicist. Therefore, for those who are professional scientists, I invite your comments below to help bring clarity to the science behind this reflection.

Speaking from a perspective I do have good knowledge of, theology, there is much that can be reflected upon to make sense of being a small part of an unthinkably big universe. When we explore the basics of the Doctrine of God, we realize that God is not a being, but Being itself. Therefore, the experience of a being, (time, space, up, down, big, and small) is not a condition in which God is contained nor do these things influence God. To understand God according to the definition of the Sacred Name, God IS, God's understanding of creation is not limited to the musing of the human person. Therefore, it very well might be that to God every microorganism is a universe and every universe is a microorganism. The God who Is, the God who is Being, can at the same time be present to the grandeur of the totality of all creation, both known and unknown, seen and unseen, while at the same time be present to the smallest singularity in which the potential of a two trillion galaxy universe resides. In short, God transcends our limited language of small and big, helping us understand that the God who brought all things into existence is also aware of the smallest of things in existence, even, to quote Scripture, the hairs on our head and the sparrows of the sky.

Reflection: How do you perceive your place in God's creation? Does it fill you with awe and wonder or do you feel a bit deflated, feeling small and insignificant? In this Advent season, let us remember that we believe in a God who brought into existence an unthinkably big creation, but also entered into our smallness in the womb of Mary. And may we open our hearts to God come Christmas and allow for God's infinite love to enliven our souls through the intimacy of Christ's love for us and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.

Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
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The following column was published in The Tablet in November 2010

This image of the globular cluster M79 was taken at the VATT in 2013.

This image of the globular cluster M79 was taken at the VATT in 2013.

Orion is rising at around 8 pm this time of year, a harbinger of winter. If you have dark skies, no clouds, and a good southern horizon, look about midnight low in the sky for a pair of stars beneath Orion’s feet. They point to a globular cluster of stars called M79. It’s a pleasant sight in a small telescope.

Globular clusters consist of half a million stars grouped into a ball only a few light years across. They’re thought to be the framework around which galaxies formed some ten billion years ago; thus they are mostly found orbiting about the centers of galaxies. But this time of year the center of our Milky Way galaxy, with most its globular clusters, lies on the opposite side of the sky from us, among the stars visible only in summertime. So what’s M79 doing here, all by itself, on this side of the galaxy?

In 2004, a team of astronomers from Britain, Australia, Italy, and France doing a census of stars observed by a satellite with an infrared telescope noticed that there was a surplus of red giant stars not far from M79 – stars that are old enough they should have spread themselves out through the galaxy by now, not be clumped in one place. They proposed that perhaps our galaxy consumed another, smaller galaxy in the last billion years or so. These red giant stars – and the M79 cluster – might be bits captured from the center of that other galaxy.

Such “immigrant” stars were in the news this month [November 2010]: one such star was recently found to have a planetary system. We’ve discovered 500 planets [many thousand now!] around other stars so far (not bad, considering the first such discovery was only announced 15 years ago) but this case, the Jupiter-sized body found orbiting the star HIP 13044 is the first such seen about a star thought to have been captured from another galaxy. If nothing else, this shows that other galaxies probably teem with planetary systems, just as ours does. No surprise; but a nice confirmation.

The merger of two galaxies takes place over such great spreads of space and time that it’s hard to actually see, from the inside, one merging with ours... much less believe it is actually happening. The whole idea sounds like bad science fiction. But in other distant galaxies we actually do see such collisions occurring, at various stages of merger and from various angles. Without such observations, we might not even think to consider such an event happening to ourselves.

(Indeed, the proposed galaxy merger may not actually be happening; other explanations for those red giant stars have been suggested. But certainly, seeing it happen elsewhere, we know it’s possible here.)

This image by Jay Gabany et al. of the galaxy NGC 5907 shows a stream of stars from a smaller galaxy that is being pulled apart by its collision with NGC 5907

This image by Jay Gabany et al. of the galaxy NGC 5907 shows a stream of stars from a smaller galaxy that is being pulled apart by its collision with NGC 5907

The stars themselves don’t collide in such a merger, of course; the space between stars is so great that two galaxies can pass through each other without their stars touching. But the gravitational pull of these stars on each other twists them into new orbits. And if (as is the case here) one galaxy is much larger than the other, the smaller galaxy will eventually have all its stars swept into the spiral arms of the bigger galaxy.

There’s no danger to our sun from such a galaxy collision. But our sun will eventually run out of hydrogen fuel, and cease to shine. Indeed, the alien star HIP 13044 with its Jupiter-like planet is going through such a phase right now. We know it will happen to us, sure as winter, because we see it happening elsewhere.

Only by looking outside our galaxy, our solar system, or ourself, can we recognize what may be happening within. The speck we see in our neighbor’s eye bespeaks what’s in our own.

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds: Have We Found Planet X?
  12. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  13. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  14. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  15. Across the Universe: Recognition
  16. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  17. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  18. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  19. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  20. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  21. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  22. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  23. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  24. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  25. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  26. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  27. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  28. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  29. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  30. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  31. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  32. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  33. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  34. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  35. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  36. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  37. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  38. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  39. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  40. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  41. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  42. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  43. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  44. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  45. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  46. Across the Universe: Errata
  47. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  48. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  49. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  50. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  51. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  52. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  53. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  54. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  55. Across the Universe: Obedience
  56. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  57. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  58. Across the Universe: Europa
  59. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  60. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  61. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  62. Across the Universe: False Economies
  63. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  64. Across the Universe: Japan
  65. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  66. Across the Universe: Oops!
  67. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  68. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  69. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors

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Copernicus and the “High Seas” (i)
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Copernicus’s 1543 book On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres is known for its proposition that our world is a planet circling the sun, but it also contains a discussion on the shape of our world, and even a mention of America.  There a story behind this, a story that contains within it a very strange incidence of the intersection of science and religion, one you may have never heard of.  This story will be the basis for the next few blog posts. Within Book 1 of On the Revolutions Copernicus includes two chapters on the shape of our world.  Chapter 2 of Book 1 he entitles “The Earth Too Is Spherical.”  He writes, The earth also is spherical, since it presses upon its center from every direction. Yet it is not immediately recognized as a perfect sphere on account of the great height of the mountains and depth of the valleys…. For a traveler going from any place toward the … Continue reading

Earth Observation: Understanding The Complex Puzzle Of Our Planet’s Climate And Our Role In God’s Creation.
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  Last week, NASA celebrated the launch of a new satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R). The satellite promises the most accurate weather models to date along with new transponders to help with rescue scenarios. Of all the advancements of this satellite, what is most touted is GOES-R’s ability to provide real-time storm information every 30 seconds! In an instructional video provided by the Harris Corporation (a key partner that assisted NOAA with this satellite), the CEO of StormCenter Communications, David Jones, explained that GOES-R will provide an updated disk image of the Earth every five minutes in contrast to current technologies that provide a disk image every three hours. This, along with other imaging advancements, will allow for better forecasting and weather alerts. (For the full explanation of GOES-R’s technology by David Jones, click HERE.) In addition to weather on our planet, GOES-R will also be able to improve the forecasting of … Continue reading

The Epic Telescope of Our Time
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The long awaited next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is on now view for tourists at the “visitor’s gallery” of Goddard Space Flight Center. This telescope has been in the making for 20 years, and just now nearing completion. The 18 rare gold-covered beryllium mirrors are joined together like a puzzle. In space these shiny mirrors will appear to sit on five pink-colored sun shields each the size of a tennis court which will be unfurled to cool the telescope from the Sun. Both the mirrors and the sun shields are too big fit intact inside the rocket that will launch it into space. Instead, the JWST mirrors will fold into 3 different pieces and the sun shields will fold up like the battened sails of a grand tall ship. The difference is that there will be no crew aboard this ship to assist with unfolding the mirror structure or hoisting the sails. In the heart of … Continue reading

Venus and Mars in the Evening, Jupiter in the Morning
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Venus is low and bright, and Mars is high and dim in the southwestern sky after dusk. Jupiter is low in the predawn sky to the southeast. Venus orbits the Sun faster than the Earth, and as it catches up with the Earth over the next couple months, it will continue to appear higher in the evening sky. In mid-February, Venus will start to appear lower in the sky each evening, until it disappears into the glare of the Sun in early March. Venus will reappear in the predawn sky starting in early April. Mars will continue to dim as the Earth puts more distance between the two planets, until it disappears into the glare of the Sun in mid-April. Mars will reappear in the predawn skies in late September. Jupiter will be visible in the predawn skies for several months, slowly moving from east to west; it will appear high in the southern sky in January, and low in … Continue reading