Sunday, June 25, 2006

To Infinity and Beyond!

In my previous posts, I have attempted to convey various aspects of my life and personality to my kind readers. Those of you who have blogged with me over the past few years know that I have a wide variety of interests (perhaps too many!). In keeping with my established pattern of gradual self-revelation (my blog is definitely not for the impatient busy-body! ;) ), I would like to share with you now a bit of one of my greatest interests, something that has fired my imagination and stirred my inner most being from the time that I was a small child. Prepare yourself for a brief journey through space and time, as we travel from our humble little oasis in the midst of vast desolation to the very edge of the universe. If you haven't already guessed (or peeked at the pictures *naughty audience! ;)*) the subject of this post is truly Astronomical! :)

I would like to turn my spotlite on a very interesting web site. It is currently my only non-friendly link. :) The site is titled "Astronomy Picture of the Day". Apparently, this web site was established at least eleven years ago (as visits to its archives has taught me). All the pictures that I present for your viewing pleasure today are "borrowed" from various APOD posts. Please click on the links below the pictures to see the proper picture credits and also to read a brief explanation of each picture at the corresponding APOD pages. Also, PLEASE click on the pictures themselves! I promise it will be well worth your time to see the magnificent details of the enlarged pics!

Before we begin our journey, I would like to explain a little about the measurement of astronomical distances. The distance between the various stars that are visible in the night sky is truly vast. The brightest things that we can see in the sky when we look up are the Sun, the Moon, and some of the planets of our Solar System. The stars that we can see are present in our own Milky Way Galaxy. There are billions of stars in our galaxy, and far beyond our galaxy, there are billions of other galaxies! On Earth, we think of distance in terms of miles or kilometers, but in space, a much different "yard stick" is needed.

Astronomers have invented at least two new yard sticks to help them to work with the tremendous distances between their objects of interest. One is called the Parsec. If you are really interested, you can look it up, but I have always found it to be very difficult to relate to. The second, is called the Light Year. Now, this unit is fairly easy to understand. Light travels through space at a speed of approximately 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 kilometers per second. A Light Year is simply the distance that light will travel in a year. Well, these are big numbers, so lets compare it to something within our own Solar System. The distance between the Earth and the Sun is approximately 93,000,000 miles. If we divide that distance by the speed of light, we can see that it takes light 500 seconds to travel from the Sun to the Earth. This is about eight and one third minutes. Thus, the Earth/Sun distance might be called 500 Light Seconds or 8.33 Light Minutes. Now lets compare that to the distance to the nearest star. The star Alpha Centauri is about four Light Years from our Solar System. So, if an astronaut (cosmonaut, taikonaut, or you can make up a name from your own country ;) ) was in a space ship capable of traveling at the speed of light, it would take her/him four years to get from here to Alpha Centauri. How big is our Milky Way Galaxy you might wonder? It is approximately 100,000 Light Years in diameter. According to astronomers, our Solar System is located about 28,000 Light Years from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Galaxy is roughly shaped like a flattened disk, but the disk has a thickness that various from the center outward to the edge. The galactic center is about 30,000 Light Years thick, and where our Solar System lies, the Galaxy is probably at least 10,000 Light Years thick (well, don't quote me on that, I'm just estimating). Anyway, this explains why we see many stars in the sky no matter which direction we look. If our Solar System was located on our galaxy's edge, our view in the night sky would be dramatically different!

Ok, lets look at the first picture. This is a very famous picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968. The objective of the Apollo 8 mission was to circle the moon and return to Earth. As some of you may remember, the first moon landing happened the following year. I remember this picture from my early childhood. It was one of the first astronomy pics that really made me feel a sense of wonderment and awe! Our Earth is truly beautiful, don't you think?!


To find the next picture, I had to spend quite a lot of time searching the APOD archives. When I found this picture of the Sun, I knew immediately that it was the one! From the APOD description, about 10 Earths could fit in the hook of the solar flare seen in the bottom left of the picture. Now that's really amazing to me! If you follow the link below the picture, you can watch an animated GIF image of the solar flare erupting. Its quite spectacular, I think! :)
Here is a link to an interesting Wikipedia article about the Sun, if you would like to learn more.

Our Glorious Sun

This picture is of the relatively nearby star cluster known as The Pleiades. It is only about 400 Light Years away, and is easily visible to the naked eye in the night sky, if you know where to look. So, it was certainly well known to our ancient ancesters!

The Pleiades

Here is one of the most famous pictures taken by the Hubble Telescope. One widely circulated zoom of this picture, has been dubbed "The Pillars of Creation". It is aptly named, as many new stars, and presumably new solar systems, are forming within this nebula. It is located about 6500 Light Years away.

The Eagle Nebula

This picture came to my attention a few years ago. It has a rather fascinating story, I think! At the center of the Key Hole Nebula, lies the star know as Eta Carinae. This star is about 100 times more massive than our Sun. The nebula is being formed as the giant star throws tremendous quantities of its outer atmosphere into space. It is a signal to astronomers that the star will soon explode as a Supernova. The life span of such giant stars is measured in millions of years. This is quite brief compared to the life span of our small quiet Sun, which is about 10 billion years. Also, not to worry, our Sun will last another 5 billion years or so, and it will never explode! The Key Hole nebula is about 10,000 Light Years away.

The Key Hole Nebula

Here is a very nice picture of our nearest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, which is located about 2,000,000 Light Years away. Andromeda is know as a spiral galaxy for reasons that are immediately obvious in the picture. It is very similar in shape to our own Milky Way Galaxy. From what I have read, the Milky Way Galaxy and Andromeda are speeding toward each other! Eventually, they will collide!! Again, don't get too anxious, this will not happen for a few hundred million years. Andromeda is quite dim, but it is very large (bigger than the Moon) in the sky, and is visible if you live in a part of the world with very dark night skys. It is really unfortunate for us modern city dwellers that night time "light pollution" takes away much of the astronomical beauty that our pre-technological ancestors enjoyed! Is it any wonder that astronomy played such a huge role in the religions of our ancient ancestors?!

The Andromeda Galaxy

The final picture is one that gave me what I would call something of a "religious experience" the first time I saw it (you have really got to click on this pic!). I was literally moved to tears! The picture is known as The Hubble Deep Field image. To make it, the Hubble telescope was trained on the same, apparently nearly empty, spot in the sky for 10 full days (now, that's some serious gyroscopic action! :D )! It took that long to collect enough light to form the picture. The result was astonishing, and it even surprised veteran astronomers! In the picture, there are literally hundreds of galaxies, some of which are more than 10 billion Light Years distant! What really excited me about this image was that I could see so many islands in the vast emptiness of space where there might be other living creatures. Also exciting is the realization that you are looking back in time, back to the universe when it was quite young. Just think, it took 10 billion years for the light from these distant galaxies to reach us, and astronomers think that the universe is about 13 billion years old! Our little planet, in our little galaxy, is really just a tiny part of the vastness of the universe. There is so much out there, so much wonder, so much danger, and so much that we have yet to learn!

The Hubble Deep Field

I would like to close this post with a poem that really touched me years ago when I first read it. It still stirs some powerful emotions inside of me! It is a poem that has very special meaning for many pilots and people who have gone into space. It was composed by a young aviator who died on December 11, 1941 when his plane collided with another over the skies of England. He was only 19 years old on the day of his passing, and he had sent this poem to his parents a few months earlier. I think it is one of the most beautiful poems that I have ever read!

"High Flight"

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.


Blogger Dr O2 said...

Wow a new post at last! :-)

I am also fond of astrology. it was sun which stole my attention away in my early teens. The whole idea of such beauty & interaction between planets, stars, black holes,... attracts the attention of anyone with a passion for beauty!

I also BORROWED the pix for my PC ;-)

6/26/2006 12:31 AM  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

David, what a lovely post. Astronomy has fascinated me as well since I was a little girl (and the poem you posted is one my pilot father wished read at his funeral; it never fails to choke me up). I have always been cheered up by how vast and absolutely beyond my comprehension the universe is.

6/26/2006 1:38 AM  
Anonymous Tess Durbeyfield said...

Hello David. Thanks for sharing the borrowed pictures. There are 2 things helping me to forget my problems:1. The thought of death that reminds me what's after all these good and bad days, 2. Thinking of how huge this world is and how small my failures are.

6/26/2006 7:09 AM  
Blogger Morbid Smile said...

That's a great post, David! It's really a very intersting journey so far away from here. Thanks for the invitation :)

I liked the Eagle Nubela photo the most and made it my desktp wallpaper!


I guess this is my first comment on your blog ;)

6/26/2006 4:11 PM  
Blogger Morbid Smile said...

Oops! Part of the link is missing!

6/26/2006 4:13 PM  
Blogger David said...

Omid, has it really been so long? ;) I am pleasantly surprised that you know about black holes! They are one of my favorites in the astronomical beastiary. :) I think that it was the ancient Persian Astrologers who were the first serious astronomers. I have seen pictures of a very intricately designed stone observation tower from somewhere in Iran. From the sunlight shining through tiny windows, the astronomers could tell all the important dates of the seasons. Definitely far more complex than the Stone Henge in England!

Jarvenpa, I'm glad you found the post fascinating. :) I remember as a kid that one of the networks would sign off at night with a dramatic reading of "High Flight" along with a short movie filmed from the cockpit of a fighter jet flying acrobatically above the clouds. It made quite an impression on me! I remembered that your father was a pilot, so I was wondering if you might know the poem. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot too. Maybe someday... The poem chokes me up also, when I think of how talented the young poet was. If only he could have lived to write much more! I still can't comprehend the universe being infinite, but the astronomers say it is. Well, I suspect that the universe is a lot of things that they haven't even guessed yet! ;)

Hello Tess, thank you for visiting! I am pleased that my post seems to have lifted your spirits. Btw, I recognize your name. The story of Tess is really quite a sad one! I hope that your life is happier than hers! Take care.

Hi Morbido, I am happy to see you here! :D You are certainly welcome here any time! I think the Eagle Nebula picture is really beautiful and it looks great on the screen of your new Dell laptop. I feel very gratified that you enjoyed something of my post so much that you would choose to look at it every day! :)

6/27/2006 12:39 AM  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

Before University I had more time & I was enchanted by the beauty of space. I know a quite few things abt space.

Yep the first accurate calender was made in Persia/Iran with the aid of astrologist. The calender still works today. Our new years start in the beginning of spring but we celebrate at the very second that this planet complete it's anual journey completely!! ;-)

6/27/2006 2:54 AM  
Blogger Lavinia said...

What an incredibly beautiful and informative post. Thank you, as always for bringing us another peek into your world.

This post kind of reminded me of Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything (which I'm sure you've read). This is because like Bryson, you have made a subject which can seem daunting and difficult, quite accesible for your readers. Good on ya!

By the way I picked up a copy og SL Magazine today and the free CD is dance music. I was hoping for some home-grown rock/dub/hip-hop. Oh well I'll play it in the car on the way home and see if its any good.

I also grew up reading loads of scifi, fantasy and comics, you're not alone there. While at the news agents I also picked up copies of Northern Lights and the Subtle Knife. They're the first two books of Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

David, you will love these, I promise! I first read book 1 when I was in 8th grade and I was hooked. I have been unable to locate the final book in all these years since.

I think I have the trilogy curse. I still only have book 1 and 3 from the Earthsea trilogy. haha! Thank goodness I have the 3-in-1 edition of LOTR.

ps Thanks for the heads up on the comment moderation, by the way. I knew I had to check something but I've been so preoccupied with the new job that I didn't give much thought to that.

6/27/2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger David said...

Omid, you are indeed a man of many talents! What else are you hiding? ;)

Lavinia, I am very happy that you enjoyed the post! :) Maybe someday I should take a chance and expose more than a peek. ;) I have heard of the Bill Bryson book, but I have not read it. It sounds interesting, I will keep my eyes open for it. Never heard of Phillip Pullman, I'll look for him too. Btw, I think that I may be able to help you with your Earthsea problems. :)

6/28/2006 1:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey David
this post is amazing, I loved it. I took an astronomy class last semester and it was really fun.
thnx 4 the email, I came back from iran last summer, I was there for only a month. I finished college and I will start UCI from fall. hows everything with u?

6/28/2006 10:03 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Ameer, I'm glad to see you here once again! I am also happy that you really enjoyed the post! :)

Congratulations on your educational achievement! I take it you will begin graduate school in the Fall. Good luck to you!

As for me, well I am hanging in there, as some people say. I continue to work with my hands and spend time blogging with old friends and making a few new ones. :)

6/29/2006 12:09 PM  
Blogger Preciousbabe said...

hey david
thanks for the nice post.
it is nice to be reminded how big the univerce is and how beautifull God has created it all!

6/30/2006 2:37 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Preciousbabe, thanks for visiting! :) When I think of how big the universe is, I think that the differences between human beings are very small and insignificant indeed!

7/01/2006 12:33 AM  
Anonymous Khodadad said...

Wow David! Nice post, and long as usual. I love astronomy too, but somehow never got very deep into it. I used to want to be an astronaut, but gave that up in favour of an archaeologist soon, and you know the results!:P

Do you think we will find life on other planets soon?

7/01/2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks Khodadad! It seems that you really enjoyed your cake! ;) Hey, I like archaeology too! Maybe we should tag team on a dig some day. :)

You pose a question that is one of great interest to me, and I think the answer may very well be yes! The planet Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, has recently shown a sign that might just indicate the presence of life, at least at the microbial level. One of the exploratory satellites currently orbiting Mars has detected traces of methane in the planet's atmosphere. Some microbes on Earth emit methane as a byproduct of their cellular metabolism. It is possible that similar microbes exist on Mars. However, there may also be some as yet undiscovered non-biological source for this Martian methane. Future robotic missions to Mars are in the works which will hopefully shed more light on this very interesting phenomenon.

Another potential source of life within our Solar System is Jupiter's moon Europa. If you have read Arthur C. Clark's book "2001, A Space Odyssey" and its sequels, or watched the movies (I am ashamed to admit that I have only seen the movies!), you may already be familiar with the idea that Europa may harbor life. The current thinking among planetary scientists is that there is a substantial ocean of liquid water beneath Europa's ice covered surface. Engineers are already attempting to design some sort of robot probe that could melt its way through the ice and check out the ocean beneath. Now that will be really interesting! Imagine the headline, "Giant Europan Jellyfish Eats NASA Probe!" :D

Hey, I hope that you have enjoyed your second helping of dessert as much as the first! :)

7/02/2006 1:29 AM  
Blogger Spooky Witch said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7/05/2006 6:56 AM  
Blogger Spooky Witch said...

Wow, this is a great post. Thanks so much for such an interesting and enlightening post. I enjoyed seeing them very much and they were exactly what I needed to see to remind me how small and insignificant I am in this universe...
Besides considering the big bang theory, because scientists cannot look back in time beyond that early epoch, the actual big bang is hidden from them. There is no way at present to detect the origin of the universe. Further, the big bang theory does not explain what existed before the big bang. We need "Mighty god" or actually we created him to rationalize everything from fate to the creation of the universe.
How odd of me, in fact I am a believer myself!

7/05/2006 7:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks Spooky, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :) Hey, wait a minute, anyone on my list of friends is not small and insignificant! ;)

I have always found it interesting how astronomy and religion are very closely linked in many ways. I try to imagine how ancient humans must have looked up in wonder at the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars. Our ancient ancestors had so little control over their lives. They were at the mercy of so many things, and there was so much they did not understand. The world and the sky must have seemed to be full of magic to them!

Now, many people are very much in control of their lives. They are well insulated from bad weather and protected from disease. They have plenty to eat and drink. All the basics that the ancients struggled so hard to attain are easily within the grasp of many people today. Is it any wonder that people no longer worship gods in the sky, or the spirits of animals that were once hunted and eaten? So many people today think that they are the center of the universe because they have so much control. They are so arrogant that they believe that a being capable of creating an entire universe has the time and interest to pay special attention to their selfish needs and desires. The way I see things, assuming that such a being exists, he/she/it would take absolutely no notice of us on our little planet, orbiting a very ordinary star, in an unremarkable galaxy, which after all, is just one out of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. Things were easier when our ancestors worshipped rocks, trees, and animals. At least these things were real with out any doubt! Also, they were common to everyone. A cave man from France would understand the religion of a cave man from Iran because they both faced the same challenges in life. Now, we are so unchallenged that we need to kill each other because our definition of God is different! How stupid is that?!

7/06/2006 3:53 AM  
Blogger Nyx said...

David, what can I say, but thank you!!! This is a great post (in every meaning).

7/07/2006 3:05 AM  
Blogger David said...

Thank you Nyx!!! :D

7/08/2006 12:32 AM  
Blogger Rose said...

Incredible Pix !!!

Makes u realise wat a small dot we are in this universe..



7/13/2006 5:05 AM  
Blogger The Humanity Critic said...

No doubt, great post man. yeah, I am a big astrology geek so this post hit home..

7/13/2006 10:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hello Rose, thanks for visiting and I'm glad that you enjoyed the pics! :) To the universe, we are certainly a small dot, but to me, the Earth seems like a pretty big place, especially when I have to walk a long distance (I had some real trouble finding a convenient parking space today)!! ;)

Hi H.C., long time no see! Glad to have you back again. :) Well, I am happy to provide you with some astrological entertainment! Maybe I should have consulted some horoscopic sources too. ;) I promise to return your visit soon!

7/14/2006 1:48 AM  
Blogger Melantrys said...

Damn, looks like I'm definitely too late for the party now....

*fails to locate any forgotten drinks under empty chips bags*

cnndk... CNN for Denmark???

7/23/2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Mel,
Well, better late than a no show! Nice to have you here at last. :) The line for the new party is just now forming. Why not be first? ;)

7/24/2006 1:44 AM  
Blogger aNarki-13 said...

freedom to cut the ties of earth, and go to heaven...

i always knew i wanted to fly, dreamt of being a pilot, astronaut, anything fast and high..
sadly, my genetic heritage (BAD eye-sight) was always there to make me realize its only a dream.

still, i'll dream on till its true!

beautiful poem. beautiful post.

what i'd do to go into deep space.

8/14/2006 8:46 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Anarki, I just noticed that you commented here. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot or an astronaut too, then I got my first pair of glasses at age 8. :( I am very nearsighted! My glasses are very thick, although I usually wear contact lenses. Well, maybe someday you and I will make it to space as tourists. Here's hoping for that! :)

8/19/2006 1:47 AM  

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