What the Mercury Transit Tells Us

What the Mercury Transit Tells UsAbove 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.

Think about what the Mercury transit tells us without even seeing it? Because of the fact that astronomers can know in advance the exact date and time of a transit of Mercury (or Venus), or a solar eclipse (when the Moon passes between Earth and Sun) we realize that the solar system is orderly. We can study the heavens and learn of the Creator. We can see His wisdom and design of our planet and the solar system in which it exists. We can know there is a God by the things He has made (Romans 1:20) as the heavens declare His glory (Psalms 19:1).
— Roland Earnst © 2019

Space Debris: A Growing Concern

Space Debris: A Growing Concern to Astronauts in SpaceA 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.

Why is it that we have to have a tragedy to make us realize the importance of being good stewards of what God has created for us? God gave us the responsibility to take care of the Earth, and He has not rescinded that duty as we develop new technology.
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Data from Astronomy, December 2019, page 15.

Jupiter Is in Opposition

Jupiter Is in OppositionJune 10, 2019, is an excellent time to observe the largest planet in our solar system. The reason is that Jupiter is in opposition to our Sun.

When astronomers say that Jupiter is in opposition, they mean that planet Earth is passing between the Sun and Jupiter. At this time, Jupiter will rise in the east as the Sun sets in the west, and it will set in the west as the Sun rises in the east. In other words, Jupiter will be visible all night long, and it will be at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night.

The picture was taken by the JunoCam on NASA’s spacecraft Juno which is currently orbiting Jupiter. NASA posts the raw images online and encourages individuals to download and process them. Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill enhanced this one. You can find access to the raw images and see the work of other citizen scientists by clicking HERE.

When you see Jupiter in the sky tonight, it will not look like this picture, but it will be the brightest object in the sky. Jupiter is not a rocky planet like Earth. It’s a gas giant which if were 80 times more massive, would be hot enough to set off nuclear reactions in its core. Then it would be a star giving off its own light instead of just reflecting the Sun’s light. However, if you could lump all the other planets in our solar system together (including Earth), Jupiter would be 2.5 times more massive than them all.

Why do we need such a huge gas giant in the outer solar system? As we have said in previous posts, Jupiter is a comet sweeper. With its massive size and gravity, Jupiter protects us from objects such as comets coming from outside our solar system. In the 1990s, NASA observed Jupiter pulling apart and destroying comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. You can read about that in our previous post HERE. Jupiter also affects Earth’s climate cycles, which you can read about HERE.

Jupiter is in opposition about every 13 months. Last year opposition occurred in May. Next year it will be on July 14. If you miss seeing Jupiter tonight because of cloudy weather or any other reason, don’t despair. Jupiter will be closest to Earth on June 12, and it will continue to be visible, but right now it’s visible all night long.

While Jupiter is in opposition, or at any other time, look up and thank God that He has created such a marvelous and unique solar system to make life possible.
— Roland Earnst © 2019

Are They Space Aliens?

 Are They Space Aliens?

NASA posted this picture on apod.nasa.gov on April 8, 2019. Yang Suite took the photo in northern Norway of a phenomenon that lasted about 30 minutes. Witnesses said that colorful clouds, dots, and plumes suddenly appeared. Can you imagine what would have happened if the sky over Washington D.C. had been filled with what you see in this picture? Are they space aliens?

We have often pointed out that finding life in outer space would have no implications for the integrity of the Bible or the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Bible simply doesn’t say that this planet is the only place where God created life. We have also pointed out that there are no cases where seeing something we don’t understand cannot be explained by natural or human actions. We have also pointed out that people who try to make money from something that the public doesn’t understand must be dealt with skeptically.

In this case, the picture is of a NASA-funded project called Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment (AZURE). Gas tracers were dispersed from two short-lived rockets into the ionosphere at altitudes of 70 to 150 miles (112-240 km). The goal was to measure how the solar wind transfers energy to the Earth and powers auroras. Science still has much to learn about the design of the solar system and how something like an aurora takes place.

So are they space aliens?
No, and anytime we can see something that we don’t understand, we should seek to understand it and recognize the design and intelligence that is involved. The more we know of the creation, the closer we can get to the Creator.

— John N. Clayton © 2019

We thank Yang Suite for his kind permission to use his picture.

Exoplanets and TESS

Exoplanets and TESS
Data is coming in from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, known as TESS for short. It is the most powerful telescope ever deployed to look for planets orbiting other stars. Over two years, TESS can cover all 360 degrees of sky visible from Earth’s orbit. Our previous satellite called Kepler could only scan a small segment of the sky. Already Tess has identified over 300 probable exoplanets including one named HD 21749b which has the lowest known temperature for a planet orbiting a bright nearby star. (“Nearby” being 53 light-years away.)

The problem with this is that what astronomers consider “cool” is not cool from our standpoint. The surface temperature of HD 21749b is 150 degrees Celsius, which is way too hot for liquid water. (Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.) A year on that planet equals 36 Earth days as it makes a complete orbit around its star. Most of the other exoplanets found at this time are vastly hotter than HD 21749b.

Astronomers have found other planetary systems, but they again have properties that would preclude any kind of life. Some of them have a planetary density equal to that of pure water. Some have orbits that are highly eccentric. Pi Mensae b, for example, has an orbit that varies widely. Its closest distance to its star approximately equals the distance from Earth to our Sun. The longest distance is similar to Jupiter’s distance from the Sun.

All of this continues to tell us that Earth is a unique planet orbiting a unique star. It is possible that those stars with exoplanets are undergoing an evolutionary process that could result in Earth-like planets billions of years from now. As we study them, we are learning more and more about what God did to create the “heaven and the earth.” God’s power and design become more amazing to us as we learn more about the universe. The more we learn, the more we see what Frank C. Baxter, who hosted the old Bell System Science TV Series, called “the wonder-working hand that has gone before us.”
–John N. Clayton © 2019

If you would like the nostalgia of watching Frank Baxter in the Bell System Science Series click HERE or HERE.

Cosmic Coincidence and the Heliosphere

Cosmic Coincidence and the Heliosphere
A cosmic coincidence took place on November 5, 2018. It had to do with our Sun and two probes that NASA sent into space.

To the average person, the solar system refers to our Sun and the eight (or nine) orbiting planets. However, between Mars and Jupiter there are asteroids and beyond the planets there dwarf planets and smaller bodies called planetesimals. So where is the edge of the solar system?

A bubble surrounds the solar system which scientists call the heliosphere. The Sun sends out charged plasma particles called the solar wind. Earth’s magnetic field protects us from most harmful effects of the solar wind, but we can see the effect of that “wind” as it ionizes molecules in the upper atmosphere creating the aurora we call the northern and southern lights. There is a limit to how far the solar wind reaches, and that is the outer edge of the heliosphere bubble. NASA’s Voyager 2 reached it on November 5.

Also on November 5, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe reached the inner edge of the heliosphere by flying toward the Sun. The fact that both probes arrived at the extreme boundaries of the heliosphere at the same time was not and could not be planned by the scientists at NASA. We would have to call it a cosmic coincidence.

NASA launched Voyager 2 forty-one years earlier in 1977. On its journey out of the solar system, it flew past and took pictures of all four gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). In late August of 2018, its plasma detectors, called Faraday cups, began to indicate that it was reaching the edge of the heliosphere. After 310 days of crossing that boundary, scientists determined that it passed out of the solar wind on November 5. Earth is about 93 million miles (150 million km ) from the Sun. Voyager 2 had reached 120 times Earth’s distance from the Sun.

Meanwhile, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe on August 12, 2018, and it traveled toward the Sun. In three months it arrived at the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona. Parker’s job is to investigate how the solar wind originates. Scientists want to know how the Sun’s superheated atmosphere generates the solar wind plasma and blasts it into space at speeds of a million-plus miles per hour.

So, the cosmic coincidence is that two NASA probes launched 41 years apart arrived at almost the same time at the outer and inner limits of the heliosphere. Their mission is to give us new information about our solar system. Their arrival at the same time was a pure cosmic coincidence. The marvelous system they are investigating and that supports life on this planet is certainly not a coincidence. It shows the power and wisdom of the Creator.
–Roland Earnst © 2019

NASA Turns 60

NASA Turns 60
In 1957 when I was 19 years old and a junior at Indiana University, the Soviet Union placed Sputnik, the first artificial satellite into orbit around the Earth. The following year the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with the goal of staking America’s claim to the cosmos. NASA turns 60 this year with an incredible record of accomplishment.

There have been 166 manned missions, 116 satellites which study the Earth, 70 missions to the moon and planets, 27 telescopes/observatories placed in space, and 17 satellites studying solar wind and interplanetary science. We now have robots making incredible discoveries at every turn, and plans are in the works for the first humans to land on another planet.

As a physics major and later as a physics teacher I have been enthralled with NASA’s accomplishments. I have had students who graduated from my high school and went on to have key roles in NASA. As those students come back and share their experiences and what they have discovered, I have been encouraged. I am excited by the fact that most of them see their discoveries, as I do, as a way of learning what God has done and understanding some of the methods He has used.

What an exciting time to be alive, and what a blessing it is to learn and grow in our faith and our knowledge! The more we know of the creation, the closer we get to the Creator. As NASA turns 60, I look forward to what lies ahead.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Data from Time magazine, October 8, 2018, page 18-19.

CLEVER Planets

CLEVER Planets Include Earth
We have often mentioned many of the conditions that must exist to make a planet habitable. The number is large and growing as science learns more about Earth’s special life-supporting features. Now NASA has awarded $7,700,000 to Rice University to conduct a five-year study to see what it takes to create a “recipe for a habitable planet.” The project has been named CLEVER Planets, an acronym for Cycles of Life-Essential Volatile Elements in Rocky Planets.

The award comes from NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NexSS). The research team will include experts in astrophysics, atmosphere and climate science, geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and organic chemistry. The investigators are from Rice University, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the University of California-Davis, UCLA, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. This will be the most in-depth study of what it takes to create a habitable planet.

The lead investigator of CLEVER Planets, Rajdeep Dasgupta of Rice, wrote: “A recipe for life as we know it requires essential elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.” Of course, that is not all that is required to create a recipe for a life-supporting planet. There are also many other conditions including liquid water, the right temperature with stable conditions, a proper atmosphere, and shielding from dangerous radiation. Having an atmosphere requires a planet of the right size to have the right amount of gravity to sustain an atmosphere. To have liquid water and the right temperature requires that the planet must be the right distance from the right kind and size of star. The planet needs a magnetic field to shield from dangerous particles coming from the star. To have a magnetic field, there must be magnetic elements inside the planet. The list goes on and on.

We look forward to seeing the results of the CLEVER Planets study five years from now. The bottom line is that it is very, very difficult to get all of the right ingredients required to create the recipe for a habitable planet. Earth is an exceptional place in the universe.

It seems doubtful that we will find any other planet similar to Earth. But as we have said before, if there is any form of life anywhere else in the universe, that has nothing to do with the existence of God. We believe in a God who can do anything He chooses to do in keeping with His nature.
–Roland Earnst © 2018

Hydrogen Wall and Creation

Hydrogen Wall and New Horizons
One of the interesting hints in the Genesis account is the suggestion that two creations were involved. A new scientific discovery of a hydrogen wall may also suggest that.

Genesis 1:1 uses the Hebrew word erets (earth) in describing the creation of the cosmos. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That would suggest the simple idea that God created everything including all of the galaxies and whatever else exists in interstellar space.

In verses 9 and 10 the same word (erets) is used in a more restricted way: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land earth…” This second creation is what the creation week describes with humans and their domesticated animals as the focus of that week.

As the New Horizons spacecraft was leaving the solar system, it encountered what appears to be a hydrogen wall at the edge of our solar neighborhood. As our Sun moves through the galaxy it produces a stream of charged particles called a solar wind. This “wind” collides with uncharged hydrogen atoms producing a wall of hydrogen. This bubble or wall is about 100 times further from the Sun than the Earth is. The wall indicates that our planet and its solar system are isolated as a unit from the rest of the cosmos.

This new data on a possible hydrogen wall reinforces the biblical picture of God’s action during the creation week as a very special action on a very special planet. God created the cosmos, but then He set Earth apart as a place for those creatures created in His image. That is the primary message of Genesis.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: Science News, September 15, 2018, page 10, or click HERE.

Why So Much Stuff in Space?

Why So Much Stuff in Space?
One of the questions people ask about God’s creation is why so much stuff in space? If humans are the focus of God’s creation, why did He create so many planets, galaxies, and stars? If God’s purpose was to have the human race as the battlefield for the struggle between good and evil, surely He didn’t need to create 100 billion other stars in our galaxy and billions of other galaxies.

There are so many assumptions involved in this question that it would take many more pages to explore them all. First, this question assumes that God’s creation of life only happened here. It assumes that there are no other planets anywhere in the creation that have sentient beings living on them. You can argue that forever, but the Bible doesn’t give an answer. The Bible only describes Earth because it presents a message for our planet and its people.

The question also assumes that God only intended for us to live on the surface of this planet. I get letters regularly from people who suggest that we have no business going into outer space because God intends for us to live here and nowhere else. That is a massive assumption, and one that I suggest is misguided. One recent discovery has given another possible answer to why so much stuff in space. Humans are rapidly exploiting the mineral wealth of planet Earth. We know that the Earth contains a finite amount of iron, nickel, cobalt. If we should survive on Earth for much longer than the 21st century, we are going to run out of resources.

Japan’s robotic spacecraft Hayabusa 2 visited asteroid 162173 Ryugu (pictured) in June of 2018. Data from the spacecraft indicates that this asteroid is composed almost entirely of nickel and iron. The spacecraft was returning a sample to Earth for analysis. This asteroid is one kilometer wide, and at the current market value, the iron and nickel in the asteroid are worth over 80 billion dollars. God’s plan for us may be far greater and longer than we realize. Space contains a wealth of mineral resources. God has provided for us in many ways, and we always seem to have just enough of a resource to get us to the next source. We had just enough wood to get us to hydrocarbons, and just enough hydrocarbons to bring us to nuclear and solar power.

Our problem is not resources. Our problem is being able to get along with each other well enough to avoid destroying ourselves. Jesus Christ has the answer to that major issue, but the size of the cosmos merely reflects God’s power and wisdom. As we wonder why so much stuff in space, we have to think of the words of the psalmist, “What is man, that you are mindful of him? And the son of man, that you visit him? For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor. You made him to have dominion over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet” (Psalms 8:4-6).
–John N. Clayton © 2018
For more on asteroid Ryugu click HERE.