The third verse of the first book in the Bible quotes God, saying, “Let there be light.” Most people don’t understand the full meaning and impact of that statement. For the past two days, we have examined how the ability to see invisible light revolutionized astronomy. First, we looked at the forms of light at frequencies below the visible spectrum. Today, let’s look at frequencies above the light we can see.
Higher frequencies mean shorter wavelengths, and electromagnetic energy above the frequency of visible light has wavelengths short enough to penetrate living cells and damage them.
Ultraviolet is the first band of light above the visible spectrum. The Hubble Space Telescope is the leader in observing ultraviolet light coming from the hot and energetic formation of young stars. Auroras on gaseous planets like Jupiter also emit ultraviolet light. The ability to see the invisible UV light helps us understand more of the process God used in creation.
Our Sun is also a source of ultraviolet light, and everyone knows UV light can cause painful sunburns. Because of its short wavelength, UV light can penetrate and damage cells resulting in skin cancer. God has given Earth an upper atmosphere ozone layer that absorbs much of the ultraviolet radiation. While protecting us from health damage, the atmosphere makes ultraviolet astronomy impossible on Earth. That’s why the Hubble Space Telescope leads in UV observation of the universe.
Above ultraviolet light, we find X-rays that are even more harmful to living cells. This band of invisible light energy can penetrate matter. Because of that, they are useful in medicine for doctors to see inside your body. However, medical X-rays must be limited because they can cause DNA mutations leading to cancer.
In astronomy, X-rays allow astronomers to study some of the hottest places in the universe, such as supermassive black holes and neutron stars. Thankfully, God has placed us far from black holes and neutron stars. However, our Sun also produces X-rays, but Earth’s atmosphere blocks X-rays. Therefore, X-ray telescopes, such as NASA’s NuSTAR mission, must be located in space.
Finally, let there be light at the top of the invisible spectrum. Astronomers use the shortest wavelength, gamma rays, to study the creation. Unfortunately, gamma rays have the highest energy and are the most dangerous to living cells. Supernova explosions release gamma rays, and space telescopes such as NASA’s Fermi and Swift can detect them. Fortunately, those gamma-ray-producing events are far from Earth. However, nuclear explosions on Earth also produce gamma rays, and the Sun occasionally produces gamma-ray flashes in solar flares.
By studying all of these forms of light, astronomers today know much more about the universe and the processes God has used to create and sustain it. As we look into the night sky, we are looking back in time and seeing the various frequencies of electromagnetic energy. It is light, both visible and invisible, and it tells us of the power and wisdom of the process that brought our planet and the life upon it into existence. Light is energy, and energy is matter (e=mc2). Knowing that, we realize what a profound statement Genesis 1:3 contains – “Let there be light.”
If all goes as planned, Christmas Eve will see the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or WEBB). It has been a long time in the making with many delays and cost overruns, but it seems that the time has finally arrived. The JWST was supposed to launch in 2007 at the cost of $1 billion. Now it is launching at the end of 2021, and the price has escalated to $10 billion. Let’s examine the what and why of JWST.
First, the what of JWST. The James Webb Space Telescope is a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST or Hubble). It is intended to be a space observatory with capabilities far beyond HST, which was launched in 1990. NASA designed the JWST, and Northrop Grumman built it in California. The European Space Agency will launch it from their launch site in French Guiana, South America.
The why of JWST is that scientists expect it to revolutionize astronomy and expand our knowledge of the universe. Science and technology have made great strides since Hubble was launched and even since astronauts repaired and updated it, most recently in 2009. JWST will observe the universe in infrared light, while HST is limited to visible light. Because galaxies farther away are retreating at increasing speeds, their light shifts toward the red or infrared spectrum. Scientists hope that JWST can observe farther back toward the cosmic creation event known as the big bang. Because of that, astronomers expect to learn more about the formation of stars and galaxies.
Earth-based telescopes must always observe the universe through our atmosphere with particles, pollution, and moisture. That limits their ability to obtain sharp, precise images. Space-based telescopes, like Hubble, eliminate that problem. Webb will give much sharper images with its mirror made of beryllium coated with gold and a diameter more than 2.5 times as wide as Hubble’s.
JWST will locate itself at the Lagrange point where the gravity of Earth and Sun balance each other. That is 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from Earth. Repairs or upgrades such as those performed on Hubble will not be possible at that distance. That means everything will have to perform flawlessly when the telescope reaches its destination. Deploying the mirror, sun-shield, super-cooling equipment, and telemetry equipment will take a month, which NASA has called “29 days on the edge.”
Another thing that astronomers hope to study with JWST is dark matter, the stuff that’s out there but cannot be seen or detected by any means science has discovered. The way they know dark matter must be there is that it holds the galaxies together. Physics cannot explain why spinning, spiral galaxies, such as the Milky Way, do not fly apart because of centrifugal force. Astronomers hope that JWST’s high-definition images can at least show us where the dark matter is by what they call “gravitational lensing.”
So that is the what and why of JWST. We are excited to see the new images of the universe the James Webb Space Telescope will capture. As we learn about the formation of stars and galaxies, it opens the door to knowledge of God’s handiwork, allowing us to say, “So that’s how God did it!”
Here are some questions that are often asked by those who are skeptical of the existence of God: Why such a huge universe? How can we believe that a Creator cares about us when we are so insignificant in this vast cosmos? Those questions are worth considering.
There is no doubt that the cosmos is fantastically large. The Hubble Space Telescope aimed at a small area of sky no larger than one-tenth of the diameter of the Moon to take this Hubble eXtreme Deep Field photograph. The few bright spots with points of light radiating are stars. All the rest are galaxies—more than 10,000 of them in this picture! Some of them are as far away as 13 billion light-years, meaning that they were among the first galaxies formed.
If there are 10,000 plus galaxies in this tiny area of sky, that means there are 200 billion galaxies in the visible universe. Each of those galaxies contains an average of 200 billion stars. So why such a huge universe?
There were two critical factors at the beginning of cosmic existence—mass and expansion rate. If the total mass of protons and neutrons had been any less during the first moments of creation, hydrogen would not have fused into any elements heavier than helium. Then the nuclear furnaces of the stars could not have generated the elements carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium, which are essential for life. If the mass of protons and neutrons had been any greater at the cosmic creation, all of the original hydrogen would have fused into heavier elements like iron, and life would not have been possible.
The mass also affects the expansion rate. If the cosmic mass density had been less, the expansion rate would have been too fast to form stars like the Sun and planets like Earth. If the density had been greater, the expansion rate would have slower and all stars would have been much more massive than the Sun and would give off radiation too intense for any orbiting planets to sustain life.