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.
In the long history of looking for life elsewhere in the cosmos, one of the exciting discoveries has been learning the things a planet needs to support life. In 1961, American astronomer Frank Drake proposed what is called the Drake Equation. He was looking for a way to calculate the number of inhabited planets in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. Drake’s equation lists seven parameters that would determine the answer to that question. They are:
1) The rate of formation of stars in our galaxy.
2) The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
3) The number of planets per solar system with an environment suitable for life.
4) The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
5) The fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
6) The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
7) The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
If you knew each of these probabilities, you could calculate how many planets in our galaxy might be inhabited by intelligent beings with whom we could communicate. Drake gave each of these parameters a number or probability, but they were wild guesses. Once you have the numbers, all you need to do is multiply each of these variables by each other.
Let me explain. What are the odds of drawing the ace of spaces from a card deck twice in a row back to back? The odds of drawing one ace of spades out of a full deck is 1 out of 52 since there are 52 cards in a deck. To calculate the odds of doing that twice in a row would be 1 out of 52 times one out of 52. You multiply the individual probabilities, so the total probability would be one out of 2704. If you knew the likelihood of each parameter in the Drake equation, multiplying them together would give you the theoretical odds that we could receive radio communication from intelligent life on another planet in our galaxy.
Going back to the card analogy, if you drew one time out of a deck of 52 cards, the odds would be one out of 52. If you drew the ace of spades 52 times in a row, the number would be astronomical since you would multiply the result 52 times! The problem with the Drake equation is that the parameters are unknown and are probably unknowable.
There are also variables that the Drake equation didn’t include, such as the type of star. For example, a supermassive star will have a very short life expectancy. Researchers at Rice University reported in January of 2020 that many stars have extended magnetic fields which overlap the Goldilocks zones of most exoplanets. (As we have explained before, we say that a planet is in the Goldilocks zone when it can contain water in the liquid state). These strong magnetic fields will strip away any atmosphere the planet might have. Our Sun has a magnetic field, but it is not strong enough to strip electrons from atoms and molecules in the Goldilocks zone where Earth is located.
More variables regularly show up, and they tell us that our solar system and Sun have been carefully designed and formatted so that we can exist. Psalms 1:19 continues to take on new meaning with every discovery we make in space. “The heavens (do) declare the glory of God, and the firmament (does) show His handiwork.”
Astronomers are watching Betelgeuse with anticipation. Something is happening which could teach us about the universe.
In basic astronomy classes, students are exposed to what is known as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It’s a graphic representation of our scientific understanding of stars. We can measure the changes that happen in stars and watch them age. The problem is that stars live so long and we live such a short time that we will never see a star be made, live its life and die. We see young stars which are blue hot and watch blue hot stars cool becoming yellow. We see yellow stars become red. We sometimes see red stars explode becoming novas or supernovas depending upon their size.In 1987 we watched a star explode and saw the production of new elements that had not been there before. But that explosion was so far away that measurements were difficult.
Located in Orion, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest and most recognized stars in the sky. Since it is only 700 light-years away, Betelgeuse is close enough for us to see and measure well. It is huge! In fact, it is so large that if it were located where our Sun is, the edge of it would extend to the orbit of Jupiter and its flares would go beyond the orbit of Neptune!
Watching Betelgeuse, astronomers can see that it is changing rapidly. It is only half as bright as it was five months ago. Because we have never seen a star explode up close, astronomers have an intense interest in what is happening to this nearby star. If Betelgeuse explodes, it will become a supernova. As we watch from Earth with our naked eyes, it would be as bright as our Moon. Watching God forge new elements in Betelgeuse would be quite a show, but it could happen as you read this or it may be 100,000 years in the future.
One of the many conditions necessary for life to exist on our planet is the location of our solar system and our neighbors in the cosmos. A star exploding close to us would bathe our planet in lethal radiation and even incinerate us. Don’t worry, because an object 700-light-years distant is not a threat to Earth. The closest star to us is 4.3 light-years away, and it is nowhere near the nova stage.
Our ignorance of this method of God’s creation is astounding. We can relate to the message of Job 38:31-33. There God mentions the constellation Orion where Betelgeuse is located when He says: “Can you bind the influences of the Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion? Can you bring forth Mazzaroth (the 12 constellations of the zodiac) in his season, or can you guide Arcturus and his sons? Do you know the ordinances of heaven? Can you set the position of them on the Earth?”
Even today with our technology the answer to those questions is “No.” Watching Betelgeuse, we can realize the truth that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalms 19:1).
One of the interesting developments of the past twenty years has been the study of planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. So far, scientists have discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets. Those who believe the formation of Earth and its ecosystem is a product of blind mechanical chance seize upon this fact to affirm that God had nothing to do with the creation. They argue that given enough time and enough planets, life was bound to happen somewhere eventually. Do exoplanets disprove God?
One obvious difficulty with this claim is that the real issue of creation is how time, space, and matter/energy came into existence in the first place. How it got into a form that would sustain life is a matter of whether the creation was designed and planned by an intelligence, or whether it was a product of chance. Astronomy magazine, in its January 2020 issue, carries an article about the summer 2019 discovery of the first planet that exists in the habitable zone of its star. The media at that time made wild claims about the probable existence of life on that planet. Known as K2-18b, the planet orbits a red dwarf star which is about one third the mass of our Sun. What that means is that water could exist on the planet as a liquid.
So could life exist on K2-18b? This discovery highlights the incredible complexity of planet Earth. K2-18b is roughly twice the diameter of Earth and eight times as massive. The mass of the planet means that gravity there would be much higher than Earth’s gravity. That would result in a much deeper and denser atmosphere with pressures and temperatures thousands of times higher than we experience on Earth. Also, red dwarf stars emit powerful flares, and the orbit of K2-18b is twice as close to its star as Mercury is to the Sun. There is no way that life could survive the conditions on this planet, even if liquid water were present.
Remember that K2-18b is the first planet discovered that is located in a so-called habitable zone. The study of exoplanets has shown that the creation of planet Earth is a highly unique and special event. Do exoplanets disprove God? As we have said before, God can create life anywhere He wants to. But as more and more data becomes available on what exists throughout the cosmos, support for God as the creator and sustainer of life on this planet grows.
Those of us who have an interest in creation have followed the work of Dr. James Peebles at Princeton University for some time. Since 1964, Peebles has been working to understand the scientific evidence of how the cosmos came into being. For his work, he has won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Dr. Peebles predicted cosmic microwave background radiation, which has been a major tool in understanding the beginning of the universe and in realizing that 95% of the matter/energy in the cosmos is unknown. The “big bang” model describing the universe fits well with understanding God’s role in the cosmos. Peebles has shown that the formation of space/time and matter/energy fits with all available observations, and he has discovered several new processes, such as the baryon model, to describe the physics of the early universe.
The Ostriker-Peebles criterion relating to the stability of galactic formation has helped us understand other galaxies besides our Milky Way. Observing the spin rates in those galaxies has led us to realize that the rapid speeds at which they move require a force that has not been identified to prevent them from flying apart. This realization is the starting point for speculating the existence of dark matter. There has to be a missing mass that is the glue of stable galaxies. Research continues to understand what dark matter is and how it works.
Dr. Frank Baxter once said, “the more we know about the creation, the closer we get to the creator.” The fact that James Peebles has been recognized for his work in cosmology is encouraging. Scientists now agree there was a beginning. The cause of that beginning and the properties of that cause are the next steps toward comprehending the creation of the cosmos.
We have previously discussed the movement of air around the Earth, and the circulation pattern called the Hadley cells. Another important factor in Earth’s climate is Rossby waves.
Because the equator is hot, heated air rises and moves away from the equator, dropping its moisture as it cools. At about 30 degrees latitude, the now dry air falls back to the Earth, producing deserts. As the air reaches Earth’s surface, it moves north and south, creating the trade winds in the subtropical area and the prevailing mid-latitude winds in latitudes between 30 degrees and the polar regions.
A wide range of things alters this simplified picture. When greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide accumulate, they reflect infrared radiation causing the Earth’s atmosphere to become hotter. This effect isn’t uniform, however. Because of melting sea ice, Earth’s poles are affected by greenhouse gases more than the area of the equator. This causes a thermal imbalance between the poles and the equator affecting circulation around the poles and creating Rossby waves.
As the thermal imbalance has become greater and the air more wobbly in recent years, that affects the jet stream. The wobbles this past year have caused the northern jet stream to go further south than usual, bringing cold into Arizona in late spring. When the jet stream swung north, it brought hot tropical air toward the poles. On its way north, it brought unusual amounts of water into Oklahoma while Anchorage, Alaska, got temperatures over 90 degrees for the first time ever. Rossby waves is the name applied to the meandering high-altitude winds that have a major influence on Earth’s weather.
All of this shows us how fragile Earth’s climate is. Weather patterns depend on a wide range of variables which include the: *size of the Earth’s atmosphere *tilt of the Earth *distribution of land compared to water *chemical makeup of the atmosphere *kind of radiation coming from the Sun and how that radiation is absorbed and reflected *nature of Earth’s surface (whether ice or black dirt) All of those factors go into making Earth a habitable planet.
We exist on this planet because of the precision design and construction of Earth and its atmosphere. The fact that it has stayed stable long enough for human life to exist for thousands and thousands of years is a testimony to the careful design and construction. Proverbs 8 finds “wisdom” speaking about its role in the creation process. Wisdom says she was there before the creation (verse 22-23) and that wisdom was a part of the preparation of the heavens (verse 26-28).
Above is a photo of the Sun. If you look closely, you will see a small dot in the upper half near the right side. That is the planet Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun. Mercury made what astronomers call a “transit” of the Sun on Monday morning, November 11, 2019. In our area of the country, the sky was overcast, and it was snowing. However, Bill Ingalls of NASA took this photograph from his location in Arlington, Virginia. I find it interesting to consider what the Mercury Transit tells us.
What’s so special about Mercury passing in front of the Sun? For one thing, it doesn’t happen very often. Although the last time was only three years ago, the next time will be in 2032, but it won’t be visible from North America. The next Mercury transit visible in North America will be in 2049. Since Mercury is closer to the Sun, it passes between the Sun and us every 116 days. However, most of the time, it is either above or below the Sun from our view, and Earth’s atmosphere makes it invisible in the daylight.
Scientists used precision telescopes and equipment to study the transit. They can learn more about the atmosphere of Mercury as it is silhouetted against the Sun. Historically Sir Edmund Halley (1656-1742) watched a transit of Mercury and realized that it could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It occurred to him that a transiting planet would appear in different positions to viewers in different locations on Earth. Measuring the apparent shift between two distant Earth locations at the same time and applying a little math, one could calculate the distance to the Sun. In 1769, after Halley’s death, astronomers used a transit of Venus to calculate the Earth-Sun distance.
A significant issue for the future is our total lack of care for the planet on which we live. We not only have the problem of plastic waste and carbon dioxide emissions, but now we have the issue of space debris.
From 1957 when the space age began, until January of 2019, humans have placed nearly 9,000 satellites in Earth orbit. More than half of them, around 5,000, are still in orbit, and 1,950 are still functioning. In addition to the satellites, there is debris from all this activity. The European Space Agency tells us that there are 130,000,000 pieces of debris larger than .04 inches in orbit around Earth. The number of articles between .4 inches and 4 inches is 900,000, and 34,000 are 4 inches or larger.
What all of this space debris does to Earth’s neighborhood is becoming a concern to scientists. It creates a danger of collision with operating satellites or crewed spacecraft, such as the International Space Station. That danger becomes especially apparent when you realize that space debris can be traveling at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour (28,100 km/hr). The threat obviously increases as we continue to orbit objects of all kinds, leaving more junk in space.
The solar system record for the largest number of moons has just been taken over by Saturn. Previously Jupiter was the record holder with 79. Now the moon record in the solar system goes to Saturn with 82!
Astronomers used some of the world’s largest telescopes, including the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to make the recent discoveries. The same team led by Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., discovered 12 previously unknown moons around Jupiter last year. Now they have helped Saturn pull ahead of the competition.
Here we are living on a planet with only one Moon. Should we feel disadvantaged? Not at all! Imagine how confusing it would be to live on a planet with 82 moons. Seriously, one is enough. That is especially true when we have one Moon that is just right. We have pointed out before how precisely well-designed and well-placed our lone Moon is. Here are a few reminders with links to get more information:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the expanse shows his handiwork … Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them has he set a tabernacle for the sun which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.” Psalms 19:1, 4-5.
The choice of Hebrew words in this psalm is impressive, and modern science has enabled us to understandwhy the writer compares the Sun to a strong man. The Sun has about seven billion years’ worth of fuel. That is enough to make 31 orbits of the milky way taking about 225 million years to complete each orbit. The Hebrew word for “run” used here is “ruwts,” which means “to run swiftly.” The word “race” is translated from the Hebrew word “orach,” which means “a pathway or highway.