2009 Is Looking Up
Astronomy is looking up this year; in fact, it’s looking heavenly. The United Nations and the International Astronomical Union have designated 2009 the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009). The IYA2009 website explains,
The International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture, highlighted by the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo Galilei. The aim of the Year is to stimulate worldwide interest, especially among young people, in astronomy and science under the central theme “The Universe, Yours to Discover”. IYA2009 events and activities will promote a greater appreciation of the inspirational aspects of astronomy that embody an invaluable shared resource for all nations.
Surprises in recent astronomical news stories reveal that much remains to be discovered:
- Flash video: The Hubble Space Telescope watched a bright burst in 2006 that has no explanation. The source is unknown. It just flashed on, brightened for 100 days, then faded into oblivion. The article title reads, “Star light, star bright, its explanation is out of sight.”
- Slow SNR: The supernova remnant (SNR) Cassiopeia A has now been observed by the Chandra X-ray Space Telescope long enough to make a movie of it. Chandra X-Ray Center announced the movie and a 3-D hologram made from the observations show that the cloud is moving outward slower than expected. They think the unaccounted-for energy went into accelerating cosmic rays. “The implication of this work is that astronomers who build models of supernova explosions must now consider that the outer layers of the star come off spherically, but the inner layers come out more disk like with high-velocity jets in multiple directions.”
- Bullet stars: Some stars are careening through space faster than a speeding bullet – some 112,000 miles an hour. That’s from a press release from Jet Propulsion Laboratory about Hubble images of 14 stars with V-shaped bow shocks, indicating motion relative to the interstellar gas and dust. These form a new class of stars: high-velocity stellar interlopers. The observer said, “Finding these stars is a complete surprise because we were not looking for them.” He thinks they are young: “just millions of years old.”
How they got accelerated is a bit of a mystery. Maybe they were kicked out by binary companions that exploded. Or maybe they got ejected from a pas-de-troix inside a star cluster.
- Bigger home: No need to feel your home galaxy is just a mid-size model. It just got 50% bigger without remodeling. The measurers had its square footage wrong, reported Space.com. “The Milky Way is now on par with the nearby Andromeda Galaxy in terms of heft,” the article says. “The Milky Way spins a lot faster than was thought, too.” Science Daily has a slightly longer article on this.
- Danger zone: Astronomers were surprised to find stars apparently forming right outside a black hole. Science Daily explains the conundrum:
The center of the Milky Way presents astronomers with a paradox: it holds young stars, but no one is sure how those stars got there. The galactic center is wracked with powerful gravitational tides stirred by a 4 million solar-mass black hole. Those tides should rip apart molecular clouds that act as stellar nurseries, preventing stars from forming in place. Yet the alternative – stars falling inward after forming elsewhere – should be a rare occurrence.
A Smithsonian astronomer said “We literally caught these stars in the act of forming,” but later said, “We don’t understand the environment at the galactic center very well yet.”
- Growth spurt: Old theory: gas giants accrete very slowly over hundreds of millions of years. New theory: Blazing Jupiters! “Even though astronomers have detected hundreds of Jupiter-mass planets around other stars, our results suggest that such planets must form extremely fast,” reported a press release from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Whatever process is responsible for forming Jupiters has to be incredibly efficient.” Why is this? The “protoplanetary disk” around sunlike stars apparently dissipates quickly. “Therefore, gas giants have to form in less than 5 million years or they probably won’t form at all.” The old constraint was 10 million years.
That didn’t stop another astronomer from speculating that gas giants might form around double stars, reported Science Daily. “It’s theoretically possible,” Joel Kastner said, “but I’m not aware of a single observation yet of a planet orbiting a double star.”
Despite these puzzles, the progress made by astronomers over the last 400 years has indeed been stunning as telescopes went from simple hand-held tubes to orbiting platforms scanning the entire electromagnetic spectrum (not even known in Galileo’s day). Nature News surveyed the suite of new instruments being planned over the next few decades. And as part of Nature’s feature on IYA2009 in the January 1 issue, Owen Gingerich provided an essay on “Man’s Place in the Universe” for Nature News. Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard, retold the story of man’s first look at the skies through a telescope in December 1609 and January 1610 by Galileo, bringing in the characters of Copernicus, Kepler, William Herschel and others. “The International Year of Astronomy might well launch the next intellectual revolution in our understanding of our place in the Universe,” he ended. “Could this have as much of an impact on society as Galileo and Kepler’s entrenchment of the heliocentric view? Only time will tell.”
For a view Galileo could never have imagined when he first discerned that the Milky Way was made up of stars, look at Astronomy Picture of the Day for January 7. It’s a mosaic of 2,000 images taken by the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes of the galactic center. The panorama (click on the photo for high resolution) covers 300 by 115 light-years with unprecedented resolution, revealing a sparkling menagerie of stars, star clusters, and wispy bands of dust and gas.
Too bad Gingerich perpetuated the misrepresentation that Copernicus demoted man’s importance in the universe:
This vast increase in the size and age of the perceived cosmos set the stage for an angst as deep as that caused by the displacement of the ancient human-centred cosmology: what significance do rational, observing mortals have in the wilderness of a near-infinite space-time continuum? This existential question has been simmering for decades and undoubtedly drives our willingness to invest taxpayers’ money in further cosmic explorations.
Gingerich, a theist, could have corrected this false notion as did the film The Privileged Planet. It’s possible Nature left further elaboration by him on the cutting room floor. If anyone should be reconsidering shaky conceptions about man’s insignificance, it should be the materialists (see 11/17/2008 and 01/15/2008).
Creationists should embrace improved observations. Gingerich quoted Kepler: “Perhaps there is someone whose faith is too weak to believe Copernicus without offending his piety. Let him stay at home and mind his own business. Let him assure himself that he is serving God no less than the astronomer to whom God has granted the privilege of seeing more clearly with the eyes of the mind.” More recently, Wernher von Braun said, “Our space ventures have been only the smallest of steps in the vast reaches of the universe and have introduced more mysteries than they have solved. Speaking for myself, I can only say that the grandeur of the cosmos serves to confirm my belief in the certainty of a Creator.”
Consider a couple of supporting facts. Despite our apparent smallness compared to galaxy clusters, human beings lie near the middle in size between subatomic particles and the universe. Consider also that dozens of physical constants are finely-tuned to make life possible. And lastly, if you think our position in the universe is accidental, it just so “happens” that we live on a platform in space that makes possible all the incredible astronomical discoveries of the last 400 years.
Incidentally, one of the new missions of discovery being prepared right now at the Cape for launch this year – a spacecraft searching for habitable planets – is named for a born-again, Bible-believing, creationist astronomer. Click here to read his story.