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.
One of the things that has entered the debate about life in space has been the presence of water. Astronomers have found methane, ethane, and other compounds in oceans on other planets and moons in our solar system. Unlike water, they are not polar molecules. The polar structure of water makes it an apparent necessity for life. Scientists have debated about whether water has existed or does now exist on Mars, our Moon, or one of the many moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Now there is evidence of massive amounts of water in our solar system.
We have posted before about NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website (apod.nasa.gov). On January 15, 2021, the page showed this picture taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, as it flew by Pluto. The photograph shows areas of frozen nitrogen and carbon monoxide. It also shows massive amounts of water ice frozen into mountains reaching up to 11,000 feet (3,353 m), which is comparable to mountains on Earth.
There is more and more evidence that, at least in our solar system, water is quite common. Because of the temperatures in the outer planets, that water is in a frozen state. Liquid water has a very narrow range of temperatures, and that means the zone in which a planet can have liquid water is very small. Because of that, life on another planet is improbable, but the potential for humans establishing or supporting life elsewhere is relatively high.
Verse two of Genesis 1 tells us that the early Earth had water in the liquid state: “And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Massive amounts of water apparently dominated the planet. Verse six tells us that there was “a firmament in the midst of the waters” that divided the waters. It isn’t until verse nine that dry land appears. The keyword in these verses is the word translated firmament in English. The Hebrew word used here is “raqia.” It is used nine times in Genesis 1 and eight times elsewhere in the Old Testament. Four of those eight are in the visions of Ezekiel 1:22-26.
The Bible’s economy of language leaves us to understand the “firmament” from its context. The most accurate understanding is what, in modern terms, we would call an “interface,” a zone of change. In many cases, that zone is the atmosphere, so in verse 20 of Genesis chapter one, we have birds flying in the firmament. Genesis 1:14-15 tells us that the Sun and the Moon became visible as the darkness (Genesis 1:2) of the cloud cover (Job 38:8-9) in the firmament cleared. Ezekiel saw his chariots in the firmament.
The discovery of mountains of frozen water elsewhere in the solar system indicates that the original cosmos had massive amounts of water, as Genesis 1:6 implies. It also tells us that when the Earth’s temperatures settled to between zero and 100 degrees Celsius, the water became seas covering the planet. This is one more evidence for the integrity of the Genesis account as it describes the creative design of God, simplified so that all humans can understand it.
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.
People give many different explanations of what the ”wise men” saw that led them to the Christ child. (See Matthew 2:1-12.) One of those explanations says there was a planetary alignment in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin). Since the magi may have been Zoroaster astrologers, they knew Christ had been born and followed “the star.” There is no connection between the star of Bethlehem and a planetary conjunction.
This December 21, at the winter solstice, there is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. If you go outside about an hour after sunset and look to the southwest, you will see that the two planets are separated by less than a minute of arc, even though they are hundreds of millions of miles apart. If your eyesight is not very good, they may look like one very bright star.
This planetary conjunction is an exciting astronomical event, but it is not a good explanation of the star of Bethlehem. Whatever the magi saw, it could not have been a celestial star. Herod could have seen a celestial star for himself and would have had no reason to question its appearance as Matthew 2:3-10 describes. He could have had his people follow the star to find Christ and kill him.
Matthew 2:9 tells us that the star “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the young child was.” The closest star to planet Earth, outside of the Sun, is Proxima Centauri, and it is 4.2 light-years away. No stars move that way, and a planetary alignment is not a star.
The Bible does not present the star of Bethlehem as a natural object but as a miraculous act of God. Anytime the Bible says something is a miracle, it becomes a matter of faith, not science. How Jesus rose from the grave is not something we can scientifically explain. You either accept it, or you reject it, but all attempts to explain it naturally fail–and there have been many.
The star of Bethlehem was a miracle to show God’s acceptance of the Gentiles and to give Mary and Joseph the resources to move to Egypt and avoid Herod’s infanticide. The star of Bethlehem was not a natural event, but today’s planetary conjunction is. As we said yesterday, today’s event is not an omen and has no religious importance, but it is a rare, predictable astronomical event.
The ancient Greeks saw the five visible planets and called them “wandering stars” because they moved randomly across the sky instead of staying in fixed positions like the stars. The word “planet” comes from the Greek word for “wanderer.”
We have known for many centuries that the planets are not stars. They appear to wander because they orbit the Sun, just like our planet Earth. They orbit at different speeds, making them appear to wander in the sky. For astronomers to classify a celestial body as a planet, it must meet three requirements:
It must have enough mass for gravity to cause it to become spherical, unlike an asteroid.
It must not have enough mass to cause thermonuclear fusion, which would make it a star.
It must have cleared the area of debris known as planetesimals.
We have five planets that are visible without the aid of telescopes or even binoculars. Two of the visible planets are called inferior planets, not because of importance but because their orbit is inside Earth’s orbit. They are Mercury and Venus. The other three are known as the superior planets since they are beyond Earth’s orbit. They are Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
There is one essential thing the ancient Greeks did not understand about the solar system. They did not know that it is orderly. The Greeks saw a pantheon of gods controlling various aspects of the Earth and skies. Each of their gods had all of the bad traits of humans struggling with each other. It was the Judeo-Christian concept of one almighty and wise creator God who created an orderly system that led to the scientific understanding of the cosmos.
Astronomers today use technology to examine areas of the cosmos far removed from our solar system. The fact that they are finding the other systems are very much different from ours should tell us something. In fact, the more we study those other systems, the more we learn about our solar system design and why it is the way it is.
One interesting fact about other systems is that even though some planets are very large and obviously gaseous, they can exist very close to their stars. Astronomers in the past explained the fact that the inner planets of our own solar system are rocky and hard by saying that the Sun burned off the gases and left the rocky material. That may be partially true, but in 2002 astronomers discovered a planet they named OGLE-TR-56b. It is about the same mass as Jupiter but over 30 percent larger. It has to be a gaseous planet to have such a low density.
The surprising thing is that OGLE-TR-56b orbits its star at an average distance of only 2 million miles (3.2 million km). Our innermost planet Mercury is 36 million miles (58 million km) from the Sun. The outer atmosphere of this planet must be around 3000°F (1650° C). It is evident that gaseous planets can exist very close to their stars, so our old explanation of the inner planets in our solar system design is vastly oversimplified.
Most of the planets we see around other stars are very large, which is not surprising since it is easier to see a big planet than a small one. One extra-solar planet is 17 times as massive as Jupiter. The strange thing is that many of the giant planets are closer to the Sun than Venus. Old theories of planet formation suggested that due to the large gravity values of stars, it was impossible for planets to form close to the stars. We now know that is not true.
Science programs on television have delighted in proposing that the cosmos is full of planets and that every galaxy has literally millions of planets. The hope is that if you have enough planets, the chance of having another Earth is improved. We now know that many galactic systems do not have planets at all. The composition and age of galactic systems obviously have a major impact on whether planets can exist, but claims of billions of Earth-like planets in the cosmos are highly exaggerated.
The type of star also has an impact on whether planetary systems can form. Most stars in the cosmos are binary systems containing more than one star. A planet can orbit the stars at a great distance, but shifting gravity fields make planets unlikely if the stars are close together, as most are. How much metal there is in a star system affects planet formation. Metal content varies within galaxies as well as between stars. A part of space dominated by gases like hydrogen and helium are not as likely to produce planets as areas where there are large amounts of iron, manganese, cobalt, and the like. Solar system design requires the right kind of star.
Perhaps one of the most exciting lessons we have learned from other solar systems is that the shape of the orbits of planets in our solar system is very unusual. Most of them have very circular orbits meaning that their distance from the Sun does not vary a great deal. Venus has an orbit that is .007 with 0 being a perfect circle and 1 is a straight line. Pluto has the most elliptical orbit, but even Pluto is less than .3 on the 0-1 scale. Our solar system design is unusual.
Circular orbits like ours are very rare in other solar systems where .7 is a very common orbital value, and virtually all orbits exceed .3. If a planet swings far out from its star and then comes much closer, it should be obvious that temperature conditions are going to be extreme. Not only will such a planet have extreme conditions itself, but it will have a very negative effect on any planets that do have a circular orbit in the system. If Jupiter came closer to the Sun than Earth with each orbit, imagine the conditions on Earth as Jupiter went by us.
We now know that our gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) are essential to us because their gravitational fields sweep up any debris from outer space. Without those planets, comets and asteroids would pound Earth and life here would be difficult if not impossible. The fact that they are outside Earth’s orbit at a considerable distance and in a circular orbit allows us to exist in a stable condition for an extended time. The comets that do enter our system by avoiding the gas giants do not come in along the plane of the solar system called the ecliptic. Coming in from other directions, they have no chance of hitting Earth since they are not in the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun.
For all of my life, there have been articles, videos, and public presentations claiming that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. Now that we know there are thousands of planets in the creation, we see attempts to maintain that with so many planets there must be life somewhere. Scientists are even speculating alien life without water.
We need to remember that the Bible doesn’t say that this is the only planet where God created life, so this is not a biblical issue. The latest attempts to expand the window of what life is has rejuvenated the need to show the design built into the development of life. Life on Earth is based on carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The National Science Foundation has just funded a three-year program at Saint Louis University to explore what building blocks might be used to make a different kind of life. The chemicals they are considering are hexane, ethers, and chloroform. There is particular interest in whether these materials can form membranes that could be considered life.
The first problem is the definition of life. Life has traditionally been defined as “that which can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli and reproduce.” An extraordinary chemistry is necessary to meet all of these criteria. Water is the basic substance of life on Earth. The water molecule is polar, meaning that one end of the molecule is negative and the other end is positive. Oxygen is the negative end. Oxygen’s bonding orbitals allow the attachment of two hydrogen atoms making that end positive. This polarity allows water to dissolve other molecules. Salt, for example, is made up of sodium which is positive and chlorine which is negative. When you put salt in water, the sodium is attracted to the oxygen end of the water molecule, and the chlorine is attracted to the hydrogen end of the molecule because unlike charges attract each other. This pulls the salt molecule apart and allows the salt to dissolve. Alien life without water seems impossible.
Hydrocarbons like methane have four hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atom symmetrically. That makes the molecule non-polar and unable to dissolve salt. Numerous experiments are underway to circumvent this problem including the use of vinyl cyanide (also called acrylonitrile) which has been found in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moonTitan. Coming up with a formula for alien life without water will be difficult. How a substitute for oxidation would work has not even been publicized, so respiration would be an equally great challenge.
When it comes to moons, it seems that Earth got cheated. We have only one moon while Mars has two. Neptune has fourteen moons. Uranus has twenty-seven. Saturn not only has rings, but it also has sixty-two moons. (Update- We now know that Saturn has 82 moons! Lucky Jupiter has sixty-seven! (Update- It’s now 79!) To add to the embarrassment, puny little Pluto, which is no longer considered a planet, has five times as many moons as Earth has! The only bragging point we have is that we can say we have more moons than Mercury and Venus. (They have none.) So how many moons are enough?
Actually, one works very nicely. Our single moon is critical to the existence of life on Earth. It’s because of the moon that Earth has a stable tilt on its axis of 23.5 degrees. That tilt prevents temperature extremes on this planet. With no inclination, the area of the Equator would be extremely hot and the poles extremely cold and dark all year. With a greater tilt, seasonal weather changes would be extreme all over the planet. Because of the angle of the inclination, we have proper seasons, and the air gets mixed to temper the weather extremes.
Our moon has the right mass at the right distance to keep Earth’s tilt stable. The moon plays several crucial roles in making our planet a great place to live, but stabilizing the tilt is one that’s extremely important. So how many moons are enough? I would say that one moon of the right size and at the right distance is just right.
The picture shows Saturn’s moon Enceladus with Saturn in the background and part of a ring visible. Scientists are talking about a life chemical factory on Enceladus. One of the interesting questions about the origin of life is the question of how the chemicals needed to produce life came into existence.
Many believers in God answer that question just saying “God created them” and leaving it at that. For many of us with interest in science, that question expands to trying to understand HOW God created those chemicals. Saying that He spoke them into existence may be theologically acceptable, but the evidence shows that God used processes that we can understand.
Enceladus is essentially a vast ocean of water surrounded by a massive layer of ice. Scientists believe that powerful hydrothermal vents mix up the material found in the moon’s porous core with the salt water that makes up its vast ocean. This material is then ejected out into space in the form of enormous plumes of water vapor and ice granules you can see in the picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft. The sight is quite spectacular, and it was into one of these plumes that NASA’s scientists were able to send Cassini to examine their composition.
What the scientists learned is that the plumes contain organic materials. These are materials that are part of the building blocks of life. Therefore, this moon seems to be a factory that builds several of the ingredients needed to produce life.
Think of how factories produce cars. Factories at different locations all over the country build the parts. The parts come together in one place where highly skilled and creative engineers assemble them into a working automobile. In the same way, we can see a possible life chemical factory on Enceladus.
As astronomical equipment gets better, the details of stellar systems other than our own show patterns that highlight our unique solar system.
The January 3, 2018, issue of The Astronomical Journal published a report on a study of 909 planets in 355 systems discovered by the Kepler Telescope. The study shows two major patterns in neighboring exoplanets. The first is that those exoplanets tend to have similar masses. The second is that their orbits are regularly spaced from one planet to the next.
Our solar system has inner planets that have mismatched sizes, and they are widely spaced. All models of solar system formation fit what we see in exoplanets. The evidence suggests that exoplanetary systems have not been disturbed since their formation. Our system is different because it shows evidence that it has been disturbed. Jupiter and Saturn seem to be tools that modify the normal pattern of solar system formation.
In 1996 an extraterrestrial rock fragment was discovered in Egypt called the Hypatia stone. The mineral composition of that stone is unlike any other known object in our solar system. Scientists think that it originated outside of our system. Our solar system seems to be unique in both structure and chemical makeup. Astronomers are discovering indicators of how God created the Earth and all of the things that allow life to exist on it.