Exploring space

January 30th, 2019

Ultima Thule and ultimate origins

While others watched countdowns to midnight on New Year’s Eve, NASA scientists counted down to 12:33 a.m. That’s when the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Ultima Thule, a strangely shaped icy rock some four billion miles from the sun.

Ultima Thule is one of hundreds of millions of small, icy objects found in the Kuiper Belt, the region of the solar system beyond Neptune’s orbit. Made up of two rough, connected spheres, Ultima Thule is about 19 miles long and resembles a snowman spinning like a propeller. Like all Kuiper Belt objects, it’s a piece of debris from celestial collisions during our solar system’s formation, which NASA estimates occurred about 4.5 billion years ago.

The name comes from a term used by medieval mapmakers, who used the Latin phrase Ultima Thule to designate cold, distant regions beyond the reach of travelers. NASA chose the name to evoke a place “beyond the limits of the known world,” a fitting moniker for the most distant object to ever be visited by an earthly spacecraft.

Astronomy and planetary science are crucial for understanding what was “in the beginning” and how the universe came to be. However, questions about why the cosmos exists, and why we exist within it, can’t be answered by scientific models or observed data. Our faith declares that everything ultimately exists because God willed it to exist, and that came into being through Jesus Christ, in whom God will finally bring all things together (Genesis 1:1-3; Nehemiah 9:6; John 1:3-4; Ephesians 1:10).

The far side of the moon and the glory of God

No human saw the far side of the moon’s surface until Luna 3, an unmanned Soviet probe, photographed it in 1959. Nine years later, the Apollo 8 crew saw it up close as they became the first people to orbit the moon. On January 2, the day after the fly-by of Ultima Thule, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft became the first to land on the far side of the moon.

The spacecraft landed in a crater within the South Pole-Aitken basin, the oldest and largest of the moon’s impact basins. Covering almost 25 percent of the lunar surface, the basin is over five miles deep and about 1,550 miles across — a dozen times larger than California. Studies suggest it formed at least four billion years ago when an asteroid approximately 106 miles in diameter slammed into the moon at 24,855 miles per hour. The Chang’e-4 mission is humanity’s first chance to truly explore this ancient, massive region. The lander and its rover carry scientific instruments to record data that can reveal more about exactly how the basin formed.

The mission also marks a significant step forward for robotic space exploration. Chang’e-4 handled most of its landing itself, including choosing its own touchdown site. Also, since direct communication with earth isn’t possible on the moon’s far side, China launched a satellite to an orbital point between earth and the moon where the interacting gravities allow it to “park” and relay signals in both directions, an article on the National Geographic website explains.

Chang’e-4 plays a specific, strategic role in China’s larger lunar ambitions, but it also demonstrates humanity’s ability to marshal intelligence, energy, and resources in the service of exploration. Yet even the unseen and unknown places of outer space aren’t completely unfamiliar to eyes of faith. Sixteenth-century church reformer John Calvin taught that “wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.5.1). For Christians, space exploration can not only expand knowledge of God’s creation but also unveil God’s glory, even in the barren beauty of the moon’s far side.

Repeating fast radio bursts and eternal mystery

Radio waves are a kind of electromagnetic radiation, and many objects in space emit them. Among the most mysterious are fast radio bursts (FRBs), radio wave pulses that last milliseconds detected from sources outside our own Milky Way galaxy.

Since discovering this phenomenon in 2007, astronomers have recorded over 60 FRBs but still don’t know their exact source. Hypotheses range from pulsars to flaring neutron stars to black holes. However, to this point, astronomers knew of only one repeating FRB, emanating from a dwarf galaxy some three billion light-years away.

Then, early in January, the journal Nature published findings from a new Canadian radio telescope of a second repeating FRB. The telescope recorded 13 emissions over three weeks last summer from a source about 1.5 billion lightyears away. The baker’s dozen of bursts were at lower frequencies and brighter than other FRBs but structurally similar to the only other known repeating one. Astronomers may now be able to find repeating FRBs more quickly because they’ll recognize these structures in data and know to investigate further.

In the media, news about repeated signals from deep space prompted attention-grabbing headlines suggesting the FRBs could be signs of an alien civilization. It’s a possibility some scientists haven’t entirely ruled out, though most suspect a natural cause. Nevertheless, this kind of uncertainty drives science forward. As study author Shriharsh Tendulkar told National Geographic, “There is a lot of fun in the not knowing. . . . Whenever you solve one mystery, it always opens up three more.”

Even if our “not knowing” isn’t always “a lot of fun,” Christians too can appreciate the beauty of mystery. The apostle Paul described the life of faith as one in which “we know in part” and “see a reflection in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). The mysteries of space can remind us that God’s mysteries can be not only bewildering but also beautiful. We don’t know all there is to know about God and God’s ways, but we see “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6), and that light can sustain us until we one day “know completely in the same way that [we] have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Human beings have always been stargazers. Culture has changed over the millennia, but our fascination with the universe has remained constant. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan said, “The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Christian faith proclaims our purpose is to know— and serve and love—the God who created the cosmos. But this truth doesn’t have to compete with an interest in exploring outer space. If anything, it can increase our awe at what we discover there, because we know the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

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