What Syzygy Means

What Syzygy Means

Syzygy is an interesting word used in astronomy. It’s a great word for Scrabble, but my kids quit playing with me when I used it once. You might wonder what syzygy means. Let me explain.

This spring brings an unusual view of the solar system. If you get up before the Sun now through May, look to the east, and you will see four planets that shine very brightly. The planets from left to right are Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn. All of them will be bright enough to see with the naked eye. With binoculars or a small telescope, you will also see some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Astronomers call an alignment of planets like this a syzygy.

We can see these planets in this rare alignment because they orbit the Sun in the same plane, called the ecliptic plane. This is not just some happy accident but is a critical factor in the survival of life on Earth. Objects coming into the solar system along the ecliptic will not collide with Earth because the planets that lie further out in the solar system will intercept them long before they can reach our planet.

We have actually seen Jupiter intercept a comet coming toward the Sun along the ecliptic. The fireball the impact produced was larger than Earth’s diameter. This solar system design is so complete that the gravitational fields of the outer planets overlap so that nothing from outside the solar system can get to the Earth. The only “planet” not in the ecliptic is Pluto, which is inclined to the ecliptic. For that reason, scientists say that Pluto is not a planet but a captured object.

The design of the solar system is far more complex than most of us understand. The more we travel in space, the more we see the effect of not having a designed protection system. As science deals with space travel, the wisdom and planning of God become apparent. Take a few minutes on a clear morning before the Sun comes up to go out and look and wonder at how “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 19:1). Now you know what syzygy means, and you can use it the next time you play Scrabble.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

References: apod.nasa.gov for April 20, 2022, and earthsky.org.

Evidence of Life on Mars

Evidence of Life on Mars - There isn't any.
Selfy by Mars Curiosity Rover – NASA

The media has sensationalized the finding of organic molecules from Mars. For many people, hearing that something is “organic” means it is related to life. For example, in 1996, scientists reported on their study of a meteorite identified as ALH84001 found twelve years before in Antarctica. Characteristics of the meteorite indicated that it had come from Mars, and analysis showed that it contained organic compounds. Media reports immediately claimed that this was evidence of life on Mars at some time in the past.

Research on ALH84001 reported in January of 2022 shows the organic molecules probably came from the interaction of water and minerals and is not related to living organisms. Two chemical reactions known as serpentinization and carbonation can produce organic molecules when water and minerals react underground. Those reactions occur on Earth, and the researchers concluded that was most likely what formed the organic materials in ALH84001. Earlier researchers had made similar findings on a Martian meteorite named Tissint, which landed in Morocco in 2011.

Neither of these meteorites gives evidence of life on Mars. Organic molecules can form by abiotic (non-life) chemical reactions when water is present, along with the minerals that make up organic materials. Evidence shows that Mars is a place where abiotic chemistry has been very active, creating large amounts of organic compounds but no evidence of any form of life.

God is an incredible chemist. One reason many chemists are active believers in God is that they see the wisdom and creative design built into chemistry, making life possible. There is strong evidence that the laws of chemistry were fine-tuned for life, especially human life.

We may eventually find living things elsewhere in the solar system or other systems. However, finding organic compounds does not give evidence of life on Mars or anywhere else.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

References: “Organic molecules in an ancient Mars meteorite formed via geology, not alien life” in Science News (February 12, 2022, page 10) and Science VOL. 375, NO. 6577, January 13, 2022

Our Essential Moon and Life on Earth

Our Essential Moon and Life on Earth

For most people, our Moon is just a light at night. The fact is that our essential moon is part of Earth’s fitness for life. Any change in the size, distance, or obit of the Moon would be catastrophic for life on Earth.

Having just one moon of significant size is a very unusual situation. Venus has no moons, and the two tiny moons of Mars are apparently captured asteroids. Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus each have multiple moons, many of which are of significant size. However, a single large moon is unique to planet Earth.

So what does our essential Moon do for us? Because of its size, it has a significant gravitational pull on the Earth. That pull is strong enough to cause our planet to flex as the Moon orbits it. That creates a disturbance in geologic activity on Earth when the Moon is over an area of unstable rock.

The Moon’s pull on Earth’s waters is more significant. The Moon’s pull stirs the oceans much like a person might stir a large saucepan of soup. Our Moon causes many ocean currents and tides, even in large lakes. Ocean currents not only move nutrients around but transport heat as well. For example, the Gulf Stream is critical to marine life along the east coast of North America and controls temperatures along the entire coast.

The Moon’s gravitational pull is closely related to its mass. Therefore, a larger moon would cause massive flooding along the edges of continents. If it were smaller, the tides and currents would not be large enough to clean the estuaries or warm the landmasses, and many marine lifeforms would not survive.

If we had more than one moon, they would affect each other. There are rock tides causing moonquakes on the Moon due to the pull of Earth’s gravity. A second moon would amplify this effect, and if the two moons collided, the fragments would threaten life on Earth. Every total solar eclipse reminds us how precise the Moon’s size is. It can exactly cover our view of the Sun, allowing us to see and study the Sun’s corona.

Most of us overlook how our essential Moon’s size, mass, distance, and orbit shape seem to be carefully designed. Attributing that precision to blind chance requires faith as great as attributing life to chance. We would suggest that the Creator used his wisdom, described beautifully in Proverbs 8:1-5 and 22-32, to design an Earth/Moon system that allows life to exist and prosper on planet Earth.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: Smithsonian magazine, December 2021, page 88.

Space-Travel Adventure Movies

Space-Travel Adventure Movies

Space-travel adventure movies and novels may be fascinating, but they are not very realistic. Traveling through space poses many hazards to humans beyond equipment failures. There is also the danger of radiation exposure when a person leaves Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field. And perhaps the most significant of all is the issue of time.

Travel to the Moon will take days. Traveling to Mars will take months. A space-travel adventure to any planet outside of our solar system would take multiple lifetimes. Astronomers have toyed with the idea of traveling to a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, which is the closest star to us. That planet, Proxima Centauri b, is 42 light-years from Earth. Unless someone could find a way to travel through a wormhole, if such a thing exists, it would take 6,300 years to make the journey with present technology.

We are considering the present technology to be the speed of the Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018, which is 430,000 miles (690,000 km) per hour, or about .064 percent of light speed. According to Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross, the laws of physics would limit the top speed of a spaceship to about one percent of light speed, but we are far from achieving that. Also, a factor to consider would be a way to slow down on approaching the destination to avoid going right past it or crashing into it.

So, if we sent out a space-travel adventure crew to Proxima Centauri b, it would take many generations to arrive. That means people would have to reproduce many times on the way. Factors to be considered would have to include having enough crew members and genetic diversity to have a healthy crew on arrival at the destination. Using computer modeling, scientists have determined that the minimum team required would be 49 males and 49 females. Ninety-eight crew members would need a large ship. In addition, there would have to be facilities for recreation and to grow food.

The vast majority of the travelers on this spacecraft would never see Earth or the destination planet. Exposure of many generations to the radiation of outer space could cause physical or mental deformities that we can’t imagine. What if this small community just couldn’t get along together in cramped quarters? Avoiding a mutiny or rebellion would be a significant challenge. Keeping hundreds of generations focused on the same mission would be impossible. Putting the crew into a cryogenic state for thousands of years to avoid the multi-generation problem does not seem to be realistic. (Remember the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey?”) 

Producing food and recycling water would be essential for such a space-travel adventure. However, taking and preserving all equipment and materials needed for the crew to survive in a hostile environment on arrival at the alien planet would be impossible to plan or predict.

We may enjoy science fiction such as “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” or “Lost in Space,” but none of them are even remotely realistic. God has given us a beautiful planet with everything we need to survive and thrive. What we must do is take care of it. That means using resources wisely, protecting the environment, and protecting the animals that share the planet with us. Stewardship of God’s gifts was a command from the beginning. (See Genesis 2:15.)

— Roland Earnst © 2021

References: TechnogyReview.com, Space.com, and Why the Universe is the Way it Is by Hugh Ross.

Do We Really Want to Move to Mars?

Do We Really Want to Move to Mars?

Mars is our closest neighboring planet at 33.9 million miles (54.6 million km), and it seems that various countries want to send people there. Several countries have launched successful missions to fly by, orbit, or land on the red planet, but none have yet sent people there. The list includes the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, India, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and China. As for human explorers, Elon Musk of SpaceX once expressed a desire to send people there in 2024—an overly ambitious objective. The UAE wants to establish a colony there in the next 100 years—a much more conservative goal. The question is, “Do we really want to move to Mars?”

Why does Earth seem to be designed for life while Mars is a rocky and barren place without an atmosphere? Scientists theorize that at one time, Mars had an atmosphere but then lost 99% of it. Why? Mars is smaller than Earth, so it has less gravity to hold onto the atmosphere, but that’s only part of the answer. One hypothesis is that solar wind (charged particles from the Sun) tore away the atmosphere. Then why didn’t Earth lose its atmosphere since we are even closer to the Sun? Earth’s magnetic field protected our planet. Why do we have a magnetic field? The movement of Earth’s molten iron core generates the magnetic field.

Many other factors make planet Earth ideal for life, and importantly, advanced life. So do we really want to move to Mars? The now-defunct Mars One project got tens of millions of dollars from thousands of people who signed up for a one-way trip to Mars to establish a human colony there. Elon Musk has indicated that he wants to get people to Mars just for the sake of getting there. He was quoted as saying, “Fundamentally, the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we are a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species…”

With all of this desire to leave the planet ideally designed for life, the question we should ask is, “Was Earth’s design merely chance happenstance, or was it part of a divine design?” I suggest that the many factors that make our planet just-right for human life indicate more than chance coincidence.

— Roland Earnst © 2021

Interdependent Factors in Statistics

Interdependent Factors in Statistics and BMWs
BMW Z4 Cars

Yesterday, we considered the wise saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” We said that one problem with statistical arguments is that they often don’t include all the variables. A second problem with statistical arguments is that they don’t ensure that all of their variables are independent. Therefore, we must consider the interdependent factors.

For a trivial example, let’s suppose I ask, “What are the odds that I will buy my grandson a BMW for his birthday?” The first question we should ask is, “Is he old enough to drive?” A second question might be, “Can he get insurance?” A third variable would be, “Do I have enough money to buy the car?” Finally, a fourth variable might be, “Would he be happy with a used BMW?”

Since I love my grandson, I might say that the odds of me buying a car for him are 100%. However, as we consider each of those variables (plus many more), the probability becomes less. Are these variables independent, or are they interdependent factors? If he is not old enough to drive, he is also not old enough to get insurance. The probability of him being able to drive and being able to get insurance are not independent because both depend on his age. His being happy with a used BMW is not independent of my having enough money to buy a new one.

If we look at the question of life on Mars, we might be inclined to say that the odds are very high that life does exist on that planet. It has a mass similar to Earth. Mars has an atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, and water. Mars is tilted on its axis, it has a magnetic field, and the length of a day is roughly 24 hours. Are all of these variables independent? The answer is no because if the planet has volcanic eruptions, it will have an atmosphere, and volcanic eruptions always involve some amount of water. Both the water and the atmosphere are interdependent factors that depend upon volcanic eruptions.

The tricky part of this subject for both believers and atheists is knowing what is dependent and what is independent. As our knowledge of a topic improves, we are likely to find more dependent factors. For example, we recently discussed the importance of hydroxyl radicals in cleaning Earth’s atmosphere of pollutants. What are the odds of hydroxyl radicals being in a planet’s atmosphere? What may appear to be a separate and independent variable is the presence of lightning. Science has known for a long time that lightning helps produce nitrates which are essential for plant growth. In June of 2021, scientists announced a recent discovery that lightning produces hydroxyl radicals. Any planet that has lightning will have hydroxyl radicals, so the presence of hydroxyl radicals is not independent but is dependent on lightning.

This discussion has practical value in today’s world. Yesterday we said that we would examine some other statistical issues involving God’s existence. Think about this. Considering the millions of interdependent factors that must be in place to allow us to exist, could they all have come together by chance? Consider it on various levels—the creation of a universe from nothing—the creation of a life-supporting planet—the creation of the first life from inert matter—the creation of advanced life. We could go on. But considering all of the interdependent factors at each level, is it more logical to assume they came together by mere chance or guided by an intelligent Designer?

— John N Clayton © 2021

No Lake On Mars

No Lake On Mars

In 2018 the European Space Agency announced that their subsurface radar had discovered what they thought was a lake on Mars. It was about 20 Kilometers across and beneath 1.5 kilometers of ice at the South Pole of Mars. This discovery set off media speculations about creatures living in the lake that could be similar to the deep sea creatures in Earth’s oceans.

A study in the July 16, 2021, issue of Geophysical Research Letters does not support the lake on Mars. It turns out that the radar images were mirages caused by either clay minerals or frozen brine. Furthermore, the proposed lake was at the South Pole, making it even more unlikely that it is a water lake. 

We learn several lessons from this incident. The first is that you cannot rely on news of sensational scientific discoveries in the popular media. They are interested in anything that will attract readers or viewers. The original report by the European agency gave data and made one possible explanation of what their data showed. Science, unlike religion, has built-in methods to explore whether a proposal is reasonable. In other words, it is self-correcting. Changes in religious understanding usually result in name-calling and polarization. 

The second point is that we often interpret research data in terms of what we see on Earth. For example, the original radar data did not show just one possible lake on Mars. Other researchers have pointed out many radar plots like the one detected by the European satellite detected. Scientists speculated that this could be a lake because they have detected lakes deep in the Earth where pressure and volcanic activity keep the water in a liquid state. 

The possibility of a lake on Mars is not a biblical issue. However, this incident does give us insight into the workings of research in astronomy and how the media report it. The more we learn about Mars, the more we realize what a wonderful place Earth is. While Mars has a few conditions similar to those on Earth that allow life to exist, other Martian parameters would not support life. The unique design of planet Earth becomes more apparent as we study Mars and other objects in space. 

— John N. Clayton © 2021

References: Geophysical Research Letters July 16, 2021, and Science News, August 14, 2021 page 8.

Unique and Bizarre Planet Earth

Unique and Bizarre Planet Earth

“Planet Earth – Unique And Bizarre.” Those are the words used by Astronomy magazine (June 2021, page 21) to describe the results of studies of the planets within and beyond our solar system. Why is Earth a unique and bizarre planet?

We have four terrestrial planets in our solar system. In addition to Earth, they are Mercury, Venus, and Mars. Those planets have smaller masses than Earth, ranging from Mercury with 5.5% of Earth’s mass to Venus with 81.5%. They also have radically different atmospheres. Venus, which is closest to Earth’s size, has an atmosphere that is 96% carbon dioxide. Mars, roughly half of Earth’s size, is 95% carbon dioxide and 2.7% nitrogen. By contrast, Earth’s atmosphere has 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and less than .1% carbon dioxide.

NASA stationed an observation satellite at the Lagrange point between Earth and the Sun. That is the location where Earth’s gravity balances the Sun’s gravity. The satellite will remain stationary at roughly a million miles from Earth, gather data, and compare Earth data with information from other solar systems. It shows that Earth is the only planet we know of with abundant liquid water driving an active water cycle. 

Scientists believe life itself is responsible for much of the design of planet Earth. Earth’s vegetation has taken whatever carbon dioxide was in our atmosphere and turned it into oxygen. It is no coincidence that the Genesis account portrays plants as the first thing to appear after God created the dry land and seas. 

Another factor making Earth a unique and bizarre planet is the abundance of minerals. Earth has massive minerals of all kinds. Meteorites contain a very small number of minerals, and the Moon has more than the meteorites, but far less than Earth. The media tends to suggest that everything in space is like what we see on Earth, but the data that scientists are gathering shows that our planet is radically different. 

At the end of each day of the Genesis account, God said, “it is good” (Genesis 1:10,12, 18, 21, 25). The first chapter ends with God saying, “it is VERY good.” Over and over, the Psalms call our attention to how unique our planet is. “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man, that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you visit him” (Psalms 8:3-4). Psalms 19:1 adds, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky shows his handiwork.” 

Our unique and bizarre planet was created by an Intelligence that shaped it into the one place that can support human life, not only in our solar system but perhaps in the entire creation.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Reference: Astronomy magazine

Space Is Not Orderly and Simple

Space Is Not Orderly and Simple

Our Milky Way galaxy is somewhat orderly, with the stars orbiting what appears to be a large mass at the center – probably a black hole. Simulations of galaxies shown on science programs present a consistent whirlpool of material, all spinning in the same direction and obeying the physical laws we teach in a high school physics class. But space is not orderly and simple.

Simple explanations don’t work with galaxies like M64, sometimes called “The Evil Eye Galaxy” or “The Black Eye Galaxy.” In that galaxy, stars and gas close to the core orbit in one direction, but those further out rotate around the core in the opposite direction. Astronomers believe that this behavior indicates two galaxies collided, producing the confusion, but why the systems are in the same plane doesn’t match that explanation well.

There are cases in our solar system where objects revolve in different directions, including the moons of Mars and some other planets. Uranus is tilted on its side, spinning perpendicular to the ecliptic. Space is not orderly and simple or as benign as science fiction might like to portray it. Each time science makes a discovery showing that space is not orderly and simple, we have to wonder at God’s creative nature. Did He put some of these things together to challenge our creative thinking?

The most exciting aspect of all this is the unique stability and beauty of our planet. On March 27, 2021, NASA released a report stating that new telescope observations show there is no chance of something in space colliding with Earth that would threaten our existence for at least the next 100 years. We should thank God for His marvelous creation and for the fact that He designed our planet for the long haul. Now, all we need to do is to take better care of it.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

For more on M64 see the “Astronomy Picture of the Day” for March 29, 2021.

Water in the Milky Way Galaxy

Water in the Milky Way Galaxy

We recently reported that there are massive amounts of water in the cosmos. Now, more evidence points to water in the Milky Way Galaxy.

An asteroid belt exists between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers believe that this belt of material is either a planet that disintegrated or one that never formed because of the gravitational pushes and pulls of Jupiter and Mars. In 2007, NASA launched a probe called Dawn. In 2015, it arrived at one of the largest asteroids named Ceres. The Dawn probe revealed several strange white spots, especially in the Occator Crater. In August of 2020, astronomers presented several papers dealing with evidence that the white spots are ejections of salty water produced from holes punched into Ceres’ surface by space rocks.

Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute was involved in the NASA research on Ceres. He is quoted as saying that this discovery is “one of the most profound discoveries in planetary science in the space age.” The Occator Crater is 57 miles (92 km) wide. The material erupting through fractures looks very much like Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Astronomers suggest that our solar system has large amounts of water stored in the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto’s surface. Trying to put together a model that explains the formation of wet moons and objects like Ceres is proving to be quite difficult. It appears that whatever the cause, our solar system has a unique water signature.

The abundance of water in the Milky Way Galaxy may turn out to be very important if humans venture into space and start establishing colonies on other worlds. Did God prepare a stepping stone for humans to move beyond Earth’s limitations by placing essential water in our solar system? Perhaps, but as we have said before, we face many other challenges as we venture away from our home planet.

— John N, Clayton © 2021

Data from Discover magazine, January/February 2021 pages 58-59.