Andromeda

Adam Evans, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve talked about the Andromeda Galaxy recently, but I will do so again with no apologies because I’m on a kick.

A fact I didn’t know until this year is that, apart from the Milky Way, there are 7 other galaxies visible to the naked eye in our night sky in the right conditions.

Here’s what the Andromeda Galaxy might look like with the naked eye in a very dark place.

ESO/B. Tafreshi, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My eyes have seen many things. A man urinating on the sidewalk in Chicago; a burnt piece of toast; a toenail under a church pew. I feel I’ve been robbed to not know until just now that I could use those same eyes to see a galaxy of a trillion stars hovering in the midnight like an accidental paint smear.

Check out this image the Hubble telescope captured.

This image, captured with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is the largest and sharpest image ever taken of the Andromeda galaxy — otherwise known as M31. This is a cropped version of the full image and has 1.5 billion pixels. You would need more than 600 HD television screens to display the whole image. It is the biggest Hubble image ever released and shows over 100 million stars and thousands of star clusters embedded in a section of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disc stretching across over 40 000 light-years. This image is too large to be easily displayed at full resolution and is best appreciated using the zoom tool.

Zoom around on the full resolution here (better on a computer).

Someone made a video on YouTube panning around the image, and watching it will threaten to crush your soul.

Comments under the video I appreciate:

Imagine someone in Andromeda is watching “Gigapixels of Milkyway [4K]”

Then I remind myself that the distance between any 2 of those points of lights needs to be measured in LIGHT YEARS!

I don’t know which is more terrifying to grasp: (1) the number of stars or (2) the volume empty space surrounding them.

There’s probably some huge galactic war we have no clue about

In 2021, NASA will be launching Hubble telescope’s big brother, James Webb Space Telescope. What will it reveal?

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What does this mean for us? Why does it make my soul tremble with awe? Some see the image and wonder how people could ever doubt God’s existence. Others look and wonder why God would make so much just to impress a tiny species on a nearly invisible speck of dust called earth and then remain hidden (or allow that impression) when they suffer.

Whatever the truth is, it’s absolutely spellbinding.

A Collision of Galaxies

In May of 2012, NASA announced with certainty that the neighboring Andromeda galaxy will collide with our Milky Way galaxy. The event will happen in approximately 4 billion years, so unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it.

Here’s what it will look like over the billions of years, photo and description from the original NASA article here.

  • First Row, Left: Present day.
  • First Row, Right: In 2 billion years the disk of the approaching Andromeda galaxy is noticeably larger.
  • Second Row, Left: In 3.75 billion years Andromeda fills the field of view.
  • Second Row, Right: In 3.85 billion years the sky is ablaze with new star formation.
  • Third Row, Left: In 3.9 billion years, star formation continues.
  • Third Row, Right: In 4 billion years Andromeda is tidally stretched and the Milky Way becomes warped.
  • Fourth Row, Left: In 5.1 billion years the cores of the Milky Way and Andromeda appear as a pair of bright lobes.
  • Fourth Row, Right: In 7 billion years the merged galaxies form a huge elliptical galaxy, its bright core dominating the nighttime sky.

Supposedly, because the stars in the galaxies are so far apart, there will be no collisions. The Sun and its planets will just be flung to another part of the galaxy as a unit.

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Unrelated: I recently purchased cheap telescope from Walmart and was stunned to see the rings of Saturn through the eyepiece for the first time in my life. It didn’t seem real. I wasn’t able to get a great picture, but I did get this shot of the moon.

Will We Sail the Stars?

I’ve been reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and having my mind blown on most pages. He speaks often of how technology has developed in the past and how it might in the future, such as in this passage:

In 1939 . . . a group of engineers calling themselves the British Interplanetary Society designed a ship to take people to the Moon—using 1939 technology. It was by no means identical to the design of the Apollo spacecraft, which accomplished exactly this mission three decades later, but it suggested that a mission to the Moon might one day be a practical engineering possibility. Today we have preliminary designs for ships to take people to the stars.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 219

He goes on to describe how this technology might work.

Then I realized, this book was published in 1980, already 40 years ago. What technologies exist now that I am unaware of? What might exist in 40 more?

It’s astounding that the first successful flight by the Wright brothers was in 1903 and the first human foot touched the Moon in 1969, a mere 63 years later. What might technology be in another 63 years? As this article explains, the iPhones in our pockets in 2019 had 100,000x more processing power and 7,000,000x more memory than the computer that landed us on the Moon.

Reading Cosmos today would be like reading a science book from 1929 in the year of the first Moon landing.

The main point is that our modern day speculations shouldn’t be discounted or thought absurd. We’ve accomplished things most people in history would ridicule were we able to go back and describe them to them. And provided things continue as they are, what sorts of advancements might be made in another 5,000 years?

Eons of Lifelessness

Some nights, when I’m taking out the trash and the lunar light beams through an empty sky so brightly it casts my shadow on the lawn, I admire the moon’s gloomy surface as if for the first time. That ancient wonder. I am not surprised that this heavenly body has inspired veneration since the dawn of worshipers. 

As I study again the familiar pattern of craters another thought recurs that threatens to paralyze my mind with awe: we have walked upon that lonely surface.

What was it like, not just to rattle through the stratosphere hoping your vessel will hold up, not just to watch the firmament blacken as if the whole earth was fainting, not just to watch out the window as the only home you and every creature in this corner of the universe has ever known shrinks into a marble and drifts spaceward, not just to witness that silent host approaching and expanding until it fills the window, not just to embrace the vertigo and reorient to a new up and down, not just to hope your module doesn’t smash into the surface and kill you after coming this close, but to finally open the latch, descend the ladder, and push the bottom of your boot into the powder?

Was it like sand? Powdered sugar? Something in between? Buzz Aldrin said it was “fine, talcum-powderlike dust.” 

What did it feel like to step forward, like a child on a yard of untouched snow, and to trespass a surface undisturbed by humans for all eternity? Would you have felt like a guest? This isn’t your home, but whose is it? You can’t be a guest to no one.

Aldrin, in the same interview, says, “I think the visual scene was described by my words on first landing—‘magnificent desolation.’ Magnificent for the achievement of being there, and desolate for the eons of lifelessness.”

Eons of lifelessness. 

I’ve seen oceans, the Grand Canyon, the stars in the wilderness, and I’ve felt the awe that renders you useless for all else but gazing. How long must this feeling have clung to those astronauts, and how difficult was it for them to remember they had come to work and not to worship? “Mission” was the right word, insinuating the ambition of modern man and the reverence of pilgrims.

Imagine tracing over the monochrome horizon with your eyes and telling yourself this isn’t a dream. Imagine the silence. Nothing you do makes a sound in the vacuum. You know the science, you expect nothing, but still you glance up from your work now and again to make sure what you just heard was radio static and not a warning from the haunted farside.

As you romp around the surface collecting samples and snapping photos you see pebbles and rocks and boulders, hills and valleys hewn of violence—furious meteorites that barreled in from who-knows-where, set in motion by who-knows-what. Asteroids from the belt, of course. Still the mystery nags at you. You wonder: how long did they travel before they arrived? Is one coming now, even just the size of a grain of sand, and will it ram through my helmet at 160,000 miles per hour with no forewarning? Unlikely, but who’s to say it couldn’t happen? If this place is anything like home, it’s possible for it be friendly, cruel, and random all in the same moment—friendly enough to welcome you here safely; cruel enough to execute you with a bullet from an impersonal space sniper; random enough to have squeezed the trigger by a collision of asteroids at the far end of the galaxy a thousand years before you were born.

You look over your shoulder into the eternal midnight thinking you might see your destiny before it arrives. Then you remember there’s no atmosphere and there would be no friction or streak of light as it raged toward you. Only a dazzling and silent explosion as it made impact and killed, cremated, and buried you in the same nanosecond.

Back to work. You scoop up basalts to bring back home, the remnants of long-dead volcanoes. As you look across the surface you consider the ugly rubble at which every human has, at some point, directed their gaze. How many eyes have looked upon this dreary rock and hung their hopes and disappointments upon it? How can it be that a thing so common to all of humanity has been touched by only you? For all of the things the human race keeps from each other, this is one thing they have always shared and always will. And here you are, walking upon it, touching it, learning it like a child learns a shoreline.

How can it be that at one time you were a child, comforted only by the embrace of your mother, dependent upon her for every part of survival, and now you stand upon the moon! How can it be that you were the chosen child of a million generations? Billions of hours of scientific pondering, experimenting, revising, and discovering all rest upon your feeble shoulders. How could it be you?

When the shuttle has landed back on the carbon planet and the first interviews are over and you’re back in your house lying in your bed, you look through your window at the celestial light and have a thought you can’t shake:

Was that real?

Do you know it any better now than you did before?

You realize that while you have seen something no one else has seen, you’re not any closer to comprehending it all. You are like a child who, after seeing the ocean only in pictures and going to one beach on one day and feeling the waters of the Pacific around his ankles, clutches seashells and hangs his drowsy head as Dad drives home.

The moon stares back at you through the window, throwing the sun’s reflected rays upon your face, hushing you like a child to sleep.


See also:

  1. Buzz Aldrin interview.
  2. Project Apollo Archive. – The source of all photos in this post. High-resolution Apollo imagery scanned by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, available to the public domain.
  3. NASA’s Asteroid Fast Facts.

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