The other night I caught a new documentary, “Hubble’s Amazing Universe” on the National Geographic Channel that in high definition wonder showed how the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy since 1993. Sadly, I can’t find a link to an online version. I hope they repeat this HD documentary often because seeing the spectacular Hubble images on a 52″ inch screen was beyond beautiful. Using technology that I can’t name, they made the images look three dimensional, and the stories that went with them explained why Hubble was well worth it’s price tag of billions.
Now, I’ve got to wonder, what will a telescope that is 10 times more powerful than the Hubble will see and discover? What about one 100 times more powerful, or even a 1,000 times more powerful? We really won’t know what such futuristic telescopes will discover, because like the Hubble’s discoveries, they will be unexpected. In my mind, the most exciting thing these future space telescopes could discover are Earth-like planets orbiting around nearby stars that show indications of life or technology.
Pillars of Creation
Ever since our cave dwelling days, humans have been asking how we got here in this unbelievable reality. Well, the Hubble telescope has shown us how big here really is, both in dimension and composition. Hubble has revealed stellar nurseries and black hole graves. It has helped scientists make discoveries about dark matter and energy, and revealed the largest structures in the universe discovered to date.
Most people never ponder the size of reality. They never grasp that we live in space-time. Hell, few people even look at up at the lights in the sky at night. If Genesis had to encompass the scope of Hubble’s vision, imagine how different God and the Bible would have been. Is there any analogy that I can give that can convey the scope of how far Hubble can see? If you were the smallest sub-atomic particle in an carbon atom that’s part of a molecule in a one cell of your heart, would any scientific instrument you build show you how big your body would be? Imagine being one grain of sand and trying to count all the others on a beach? In the photo above, our solar system is so small it wouldn’t be seen in those dust pillars that are light years high. But look at the picture below. The above scene is smaller than you in relation to the solar system compared to the objects in the photo below.
This is the famous Hubble ultra deep field photo, where scientists tried to photograph an empty patch of sky. Each speck of light is a galaxy containing billions of stars. Now imagine a more powerful space telescope picking a black patch in this photo and zooming in on it. What would it see?
We know the universe is big. Back to that analogy of being a sub-atomic particle in your heart, now imagine trying to figure out that you are part of a body of organs, each with its purpose, could you ever imagine what the brain does from just looking at its parts from your tiny vantage point? It’s no wonder that so many want to embrace the Biblical view of creation, because the scientific view is too much work to grasp by us little fellas. Individually we are tiny, but scientists stand on each other’s shoulders to get the bigger view. Now imagine future space telescopes spying on nearby stellar systems and seeing other Earth-like worlds, worlds where we analyze the chemicals in their atmospheres. What if we discovered what we call man-made chemicals?
Now imagine, if we could get our giant artificial brains to communicate with the distant giant AIs of their world. How far can two species see standing on each other’s shoulders?
Think of it another way. If we consider every human as a cell in the body of a single being called humanity, a space telescope could be its eyes, and all our computers and knowledge, its brain. The mirror lens of the Hubble telescope was slightly wider than a very tall man. Now imagine building a pair of eyes in space where the pupils were the size of a football stadium? How far could our new body see? Then hook them up to immense armies of computers and swarms of natural philosophers and you might begin to imagine what I’m asking. And, I’m only wondering, “what might we see?” We won’t know until we build these new eyes.
The primary question we’ve always asked is, “Where do we come from?” The next important question is, “Are we alone?” We hoped that SETI would answer that question, but it might be astronomy and space telescopes that will actually answer it. The manned Apollo missions to the Moon answered a lot of scientific questions, but the Hubble Space Telescope has answered an immense amount more in comparison. Some people are now asking, what if we went back to the Moon and built truly giant telescopes on its far side, how far could we see?
The James Webb Space Telescope is schedule to fly to L2 orbit in several years, and it’s eye is 6.5 meters in diameter, compared to Hubble’s 2.4. The JWST is designed to see in the infrared, and not the visible spectrum like Hubble, but then the visible spectrum is such a tiny fragment of the total spectrum to be explored.
What if Congress had said no to the financial bailout, and given the $700 billion to astronomers, how much more would we have gotten for our money? Just try and speculate what life on Earth would be like if we found out we weren’t alone in the Universe, and had nearby neighbors. The Hubble Space Telescope gave us a quantum leap in knowledge about the universe, so think about a Hubble telescope at 10x, or 100x or 1000x.