The Mind-Blowing Universe

The new James Webb space telescope is soon to be operating, and sending back images from parts of our universe never seen before.

That made me think about something that happened when I was in junior school, around seven or eight years old. (Before space travel) We were learning about the planets, and their distances from Earth.

Then the teacher showed us a photo of The Milky Way, taken by a telescope on a high mountain somewhere. Someone asked her how far away The Milky Way was. She talked about estimates, and said it was around 30,000 light years from us.

I had no concept of what a light year was. (To be honest, I still haven’t.)

Someone else asked her if The Milky Way was the end of outer space. She smiled, and shook her head. Then she said something I have never forgotten.

“The universe is limitless, so it has no end. The next nearest galaxy is two million light years from Earth.”.

Ten years before I ever tried mind-expanding drugs, her statement completely blew my mind.

Sixty-two years later, I still cannot get my head around the concept.

The Second Biggest Bang

In case you hadn’t noticed, there has been some fascinating news from outer space. The second biggest explosion in the history of the universe has been captured on a telescope.

The facts surrounding this are mind-blowing.

The huge release of energy is thought to have emanated from a super-massive black hole some 390 million light years from Earth.

“To give it another dimension; [the cavity] is about one-and-a-half-million light-years across. So the hole that was punched in the surrounding space in the hot X-ray plasma would take light itself one-and-a-half-million years to traverse”. (A Scientist)

‘A super-massive black hole released the energetic explosion over 240 million years ago. The explosion occurred in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, about 390 million light-years from Earth, and was so powerful it blasted a hole in the cluster plasma – the super-hot gas surrounding the black hole’. (Science Focus)

So, the light from this explosion was so far away, it took almost 400,000,000 years to reach Earth. (And I think Norwich is a long way to travel.)

Try getting your head around that, I can’t!

(Anyway, better than me moaning about the weather, which by the way is bloody awful!)

Getting excited about astronomy

I like the night sky as much as anyone. Nothing beats living in a place where clean air and lack of light pollution can give you some wonderful views of the stars. I don’t know much about the subject, but I can recognise the more familiar groups. Orion’s Belt, The Big Dipper, all those usual suspects that most of us have been shown, or taught about, at some time in our lives.

As I got older, the makers of television programmes latched onto the growing interest in the Universe. More entertaining less technical shows on the subject started to appear. From one of these, I learned that the light we see from a star is actually caused by the fact that it has exploded, countless centuries ago. That light from the explosion takes so long to reach our part of the galaxy, that it remains shining constantly, so we can see it when conditions are right. I confess that really taxed my levels of understanding. These stars have been viewed for thousands of years, and have fascinated mankind since he first stood on two legs, and gazed upward. Yet in 2017, I can look out of my window this evening, and see that same light as the caveman from thousands of years ago.

That gave me quite a headache, I can tell you, trying to work out how that could happen. The space-time continuum, the theory of relativity, light speed, and many other technical terms were thrown at me from the TV. Most were (and still are) completely beyond the comprehension of this mere mortal. I just like the twinkling lights in the sky over Norfolk. I should never have tried to discover why they were there. But I stuck with the subject, finally getting the most basic grasp of what they were on about.

More recently, there was a great deal of excitement in the halls of astronomy. Not only has a new planet been discovered, presumably using some remarkable telescope, they were sure that the planet was ‘Earth-like’, and might well contain water. They came to this assumption by studying the images of the surface, and when interviewed on TV, the experts were literally beside themselves with joy. Imagine the kerfuffle when they went on to discover some seven more ‘Earth-like’ planets orbiting a star that they named Trappist-1. I was swept up in the enthusiasm. Could this be the answer to mankind’s problems? New worlds to inhabit, science fiction becoming fact?

I immediately wanted to discover more. The first discovery was named Kepler 186f, after the NASA telescope. It is about the size of Earth, but the view we saw on TV was not a photograph, rather an ‘artistic impression’. The speculation about life or water existing there was just that, speculation. All the ‘findings’ appear to be based on rough measurement of the size of the planet, and its position relative to other planets in the Constellation Cygnus. I was still excited. We should start building the Starfleet transports, I thought. After all, it’s got to be worth a try? Then I noticed something I had overlooked. Kepler 186f is located 500 Light Years from Earth. Not local then.

I looked it up.
‘According to Guinness World Records, the Fastest spacecraft speed is 246,960 km/h. A light year is 9.461e+12 km. So, 500 light years would take: 9.461e+12*500/(246,690*24*365) = 2,186,565 years.’
(Let’s face it, not many of us could have worked that out, even with a good calculator)
So, just 2.2 (less change) MILLION years to get there, using the best technology available today.

I’m not excited anymore. Not in the least.