It’s 2.5 billion light-years away, and brighter than the over 100 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy combined. If it were even as close as 30 light-years from us, it would appear as bright as the Sun, which is only eight light minutes away. Before anyone ever saw it, scientists detected it by the radio waves that it sends out.
In 1963, astronomer Allan Sandage was the first to observe quasar 3C 273 with a telescope. Quasars are the brightest objects in the known universe. They’re massive discs of particles that surround a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. They emit intensely powerful energy as the black hole sucks the life out of matter and pulls it into its abyss. The energy is brighter than 100 billion stars.
The cloudy streak in the picture from NASA’s Hubble Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 is a jet of energy that was fired off by the quasar at some time in the past. That streak is 200,000 light-years long! It would be impossible to survive in a galaxy with a quasar in its center. The intense energy from the quasar would destroy life while the black hole devoured the matter. We can be thankful that this quasar is so far away, even though it is one of the nearest.
Life on Earth is possible because we have no black holes or quasars near us. We think the universe reveals the work of an amazing Master Designer. We agree with Dr. Allan Sandage, the first person to observe a quasar, when he said, “Science makes explicit the quite incredible natural order, the interconnections at many levels between the laws of physics…Why is the design that we see everywhere so truly miraculous?… As I said before, the world is too complicated in all its parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone.”
The media often overlook how many things have to be “right” for life to exist on a planet. Planetary atmospheric pressure is one factor.
By “life,” we mean the standard textbook definition of organisms that can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli, and reproduce. The problem is that many conditions make other terrestrial planets (planets with hard surfaces) unlikely to harbor life. Life is even less likely on Jovian planets that are primarily gaseous. You can postulate balloon-like living organisms in Jupiter or Saturn’s atmosphere, but radiation and electrical problems make that unlikely as well.
Planetary atmospheric pressure depends on the weight of the gases above a planet’s surface. The air pressure on Earth’s surface is 14.696 pounds per square inch a sea level. That pressure allows water to exist as a liquid, and it will enable various gases to dissolve in the water. We all know what happens when you shake a bottle of carbonated beverage and then quickly remove the cap. The sudden drop in pressure causes an explosion as the dissolved carbon dioxide escapes from the liquid. For organisms to absorb oxygen dissolved in water, which fish do, the atmospheric pressure must be high enough for the oxygen to dissolve. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is .01 of the pressure on Earth. That means water on Mars would contain no oxygen or dissolved gases.
There has been discussion about finding water on the Moon or Mercury, but those atmospheric pressures are considerably lower than those on Mars. That means water would not be in a liquid state. On the other end of the pressure spectrum is Venus, where atmospheric pressure 92 times greater than on Earth. At that pressure, toxic gases would be dissolved in any water that existed on the planet.
Planetary atmospheric pressure is just one more variable that must be carefully and precisely chosen when constructing an environment that will support and sustain life. The creation is far more complicated than most of us realize. As we learn more, we must stand in awe of the God who created our planet.
Every time we get a better view of outer space, a new mystery steps forward. In 2015 a spacecraft called New Horizons went past Pluto and raced into outer space. The computers onboard the spacecraft were programmed to block out all light from known objects in the Milky Way galaxy. You would expect that if no light from stars or galaxies could get into the light measuring devices on New Horizons, it would measure only total and complete darkness. Instead, what New Horizons told us is that outer space is not dark but incredibly brilliant.
Outer space has an amount of light equivalent to the light from all the known galaxies in space! Tod Lauer, a spokesperson for the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson, says, “There’s something out there unknown.” The most likely scenario for this unexplained light is that there are still more galaxies and stars or clusters of stars beyond the reach of our telescopes, illuminating the distant clouds of matter.
Astronomers have said that the size of the cosmos is not only larger than we can describe with our known science and mathematics, but it is also larger than we can imagine. David wrote in Psalms 139:7-12, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. … If I say ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you…”
If you have looked to the southwest just after sunset in the past month, you probably saw two bright stars that have been moving closer to each other. They are not stars. They are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, two of the brightest objects in the sky, reaching a planetary conjunction for the winter solstice.
In their orbits around the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn appear to pass each other about every 20 years. However, the last time they appeared this close was in 1623, just 13 years after Galileo first pointed his telescope into the night sky and discovered four moons of Jupiter and saw Saturn’s rings. On December 21, those two planets will appear only one-tenth of a degree apart. That is one-fifth the diameter of the full moon.
You can bet that there will be hucksters making connections between this very unusual astronomical event and the star of Bethlehem or various political events. This conjunction is not part of a doomsday scenario but a demonstration of the accuracy of scientific observation. We can predict planetary conjunctions or solar and lunar eclipses to the minute, which is not hard to do.
When I taught earth science using the Earth Science Curriculum Project, we did a lab where the students predicted an eclipse of the Sun. They predicted when it would begin, when it would reach totality, and when it would end. I tried to make this a school-wide event, and the principal permitted me to take all 1000 students onto the school lawn to witness the eclipse. We gave the students special glasses and set up our telescopes to observe the eclipse.
We told the students what was going to happen and when it would happen. When it started, and the sky got dark, dogs began to howl. Crescents appeared on the ground under the trees as the eclipse projected through spaces in the leaves. Even though we had told the students what would happen, some kids began crying and ran back into the building in fear.
Why do people lack trust in scientific information, whether it concerns an eclipse, planetary movements, climate change, or COVID-19? Science and the Bible are friends, and God has called us to look at the creation around us and learn from it. Proverbs 8, Romans 1:19-20, and Matthew 6:25-33 all remind us of science and faith’s symbiotic relationship.
Tomorrow we will consider this planetary conjunction and the star of Bethlehem.
A question that astronomers have been working on for years is, “What is the shape of space?” The latest technical tools have answered this question, and it has significant apologetic value for those of us who believe in God.
Let us try to understand the issue. There are three possible shapes to space. It can be elliptical, hyperbolic, or flat. A mathematician would express this in geometric terms using Euclid’s fifth postulate. You have probably forgotten the postulate, but it merely said that through a point, there could only be one line drawn parallel to a given line. The other choices would be that there could be no lines drawn parallel to a given line or that there could be any number of lines drawn parallel to a given line. The fifth postulate assumes that the universe is flat. This is true for all terrestrial purposes, so no one is throwing away the high school plane geometry textbooks.
So what is the shape of space? In an elliptical universe, all parallel lines would eventually meet. If you go far enough into outer space, you would eventually curve back to where you started. In other words, if you had perfect vision and a perfectly clear sky, you could see the back of your head by looking far enough out into space. Light would curve following the shape of space. We all know that a triangle has internal angles that add up to 180 degrees, but in an elliptical universe, the angles would add up to more than 180 degrees.
In a hyperbolic universe, space would be saddle-shaped. Light going out into space would curve because of the curvature of space. But the curve would never close. It would just keep on curving. The sum of the angles of a triangle would be less than 180 degrees, and parallel lines would never meet no matter how far they go. They just curve away from each other.
New instruments can measure cosmic microwave background radiation with such accuracy that scientists can determine the shape of space. That is because the microwaves follow the shape of space. What is the shape of space? It turns out that space is flat or planar. The implications of this discovery are enormous. Since the universe is expanding, the creation is clearly not oscillating. It will not collapse back on itself and start over again as it would in an elliptical universe. In a planar or flat universe, there are no repeats. Physical reincarnation can never happen.
This also tells us that space is a created thing and not eternal. The universe was created with shape and with laws that apply in a flat universe following Euclid’s fifth postulate. Our studies in quantum mechanics are beginning to give us some indication that dimensions outside of space-time are the source for space and time as well as matter-energy. Genesis 1:1 rings more true than we ever imagined. The closer we get to understanding the creation, the closer we get to understanding the methods of the Creator.
The fact is that a Japanese robotic satellite that has been orbiting Venus since 2015 records data in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. The satellite has detected spectra for the chemical phosphine (PH3). Phosphine is a flammable, toxic gas made of one phosphorous atom attached to three hydrogen atoms. It is difficult to make in a typical chemistry lab. Biologists know that there are microbes that can make phosphine. Finding the chemical in the upper clouds of Venus, where the temperatures are low enough for the gas to exist, raised some questions about whether microbes could have produced it.
It is possible that the phosphine could have been produced by conditions on Venus that are not available on Earth. Such conditions could be very low pressures, long term effects of ultraviolet light, and long periods of time. The environment of Venus is highly toxic, even to microbes, so microbe production is unlikely. Scientists have found many of the chemicals essential to life or possibly produced by living organisms on several moons in the solar system. The creation process produces chemicals that can be associated with life, including water. The environmental parameters of all of these places are so extreme that no astronomer expects to see an alien walking around.
The Bible doesn’t say that Earth is the only place where life exists, and it may be that God has created life elsewhere. As humans leave our planet searching for chemicals and materials to meet the 21st century’s needs, we may find a storehouse of essential materials, both metallic and biological. Did science find life on Venus? No. This newest media hype does not tell us anything we didn’t already know, but the discovery is interesting.
One of the fantastic and vital features of planet Earth is our atmospheric shield. We have often mentioned the NASA website AstronomyPicture of the Day (apod.nasa.gov). Every day NASA posts a different astronomy picture to show us something of the cosmos. This is an excellent service because most of us don’t have access to giant telescopes, and we can’t see light in wavelengths outside of the visible spectrum.
On September 12, 2020, NASA’s posting showed a time-lapse series of pictures taken by the New South Wales observatory in Australia. This observatory is located at 33 degrees south latitude in an area with minimal light pollution, so there is minimal obstruction of the night sky. The pictures were recorded on 372 nights and run like a movie. What you see are sporadic meteors, fireballs, meteor showers, and even a lightning sprite. The series shows over 1000 meteors.
Remember that this picture sequence shows a relatively small area of sky. This does remind us that there is a constant rain of dust, pieces of rock, and other debris coming down upon our planet. People working with communication satellites are well aware of this because of constant damage to the orbiting objects. For those of us on Earth’s surface, our atmospheric shield burns up most of the solid space material. We don’t have to worry about getting hit by space debris or getting sandpapered by the small dust particles coming from outer space. That is just the solid stuff. Our atmospheric shield also refracts away non-solid radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays.
Providing a place where life can exist is not as easy as some think. One of the reasons we are not finding life in outer space is that designing and implementing our atmospheric shield was vital for the existence of life, and doing that was not simple. It required intelligence and a carefully implemented design. The simple statement, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth” doesn’t tell us the incredible difficulty of doing that.
The dominant theory for the origin of the planets in our solar system assumes that they all evolved from a single mass or nebula. Several factors support that idea. Those factors include the fact that the planets lie roughly in one plane, that they all revolve around the Sun in the same direction, and that there is mathematical predictability to their location. Most of the irregularities that might indicate against a common source, such as variations in planetary tilt, have reasonable explanations. However, new planetary atmosphere variations are difficult to explain.
Recent studies of the atmospheres of the terrestrial planets have shown wide variations. Our atmosphere contains 78% nitrogen, but nitrogen on Venus is 4%, and on Mars, it is 2.7%. Both Mars and Venus have atmospheres that are 95% carbon dioxide, while Earth is 0.1%, and Mercury has none. Earth and Mercury have oxygen in their atmospheres, 21% and 42% respectively, but Venus and Mars have less than 1%. Astronomers theorize that they can explain these planetary atmosphere variations. They suggest that the atmospheres are not original to the planets, but were produced by processes that took place after the formation of the planets. The best guess now is that impacts and outgassing formed the atmospheres. This is not a trivial matter because life is not possible without the proper combination of atmospheric gases.
The Genesis account describes the production of Earth’s structure in a sequence. Genesis 1:6-9 indicates separate creations of the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere. The new data support the idea that once Earth was created, continued activity prepared it for life. Once again, we find the scientific evidence in support of the Bible’s description.
Those of us who are interested in the subject of creation have been excited about some new data which will help us understand the cosmos. Apparently God has built into the creation various devices to help us more clearly see what He has created. Among those devices are fast radio bursts (FRBs).
When high mass stars draw in matter, they emit various frequencies of radio waves. Neutron stars and black holes release radio waves in a wide range of different energies. High energy waves travel through space without being affected a great deal by anything. Lower energy radio waves are affected by whatever material they pass through. Recent research has shown that in interstellar space there are variations in the actual speed of radio waves coming from a common source, depending on how much intergalactic material the waves are going through.
The material that slows the radiation is the ordinary particles called baryons, including protons and neutrons. We now know that interstellar space is full of the matter that makes up our galaxy, but at a very low density. These microscopic baryons do not emit light so we have not been able to detect their presence in the past. Fast radio bursts can make it possible for us to observe them because of the effect they have on the speed of the radiation.
Astronomers know from observing the light that was emitted when the universe was young that baryons should be the source of five percent of all the mass and energy in the cosmos. If that was true at the beginning, it should also be true today. However, the stars and gas we can see only account for half of that amount. The baryons are not uniform or isotropic in their distribution, but rather exist as filaments making a sort of web of low density matter which can be measured using FRBs. Astronomers are optimistic that this discovery will account for the “missing mass” in the creation. (This is the missing mass of regular matter, not dark matter, which is still a mystery.)
When the Bible challenges us to “know there is a God through the things He has made (Romans 1:20), it implies that this process is ongoing. In the 21st century we are blessed with new and better tools to see what God has made. Like the microscope, fast radio bursts open whole new vistas for us so that we can see and understand more of the handiwork of God.
The March 2020 issue of Scientific American (page 10-11) carried an interesting interview with well-known astronomer Dr. Mike Brown. One of the issues raised is the uniqueness of our solar system compared to other known planetary systems in the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers have discovered thousands of extra-solar planets, and the evidence shows that our solar system design is not typical.
Dr. Brown points out that we are finding giant planets that are closer to their suns than our planet Mercury. We also find stars with eight very small planets that are also inside the orbital distance of Mercury. We don’t see a planet as small as Earth located as far from the parent star as we are anywhere else in the Milky Way. That makes the chances of having a planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” (where water could exist as a liquid) very low. It also means that the masses of the giant planets close to their parent stars must be enormous, and the speed of their orbits must be astronomical.
Proverbs 8 finds “Wisdom” speaking, and she says in verses 22-27, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His work before the Earth ever was … when he prepared the heavens, I was there.” The production of our planet was an incredible work of design, not an accident. That certainly urges us to care for what God has created.