by Preston MacDougall
November 09, 2006
This is not the very, very beginning of the Star Wars fantasy. Rather, it is a typical conclusion that astrochemists might reach after studying data collected, and relayed back to Earth, by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Stigmatized early on because a flaw in its construction required an unplanned Space Shuttle mission to install a "corrective lens", Hubble has recovered and surprised even its most ardent promoters with what it has seen for us. So much so that an ad hoc panel, formed by members of the National Academy of Sciences, forcefully argued that astronauts on a new Space Shuttle mission, and not a robot launched on its own, as was planned originally, should perform a fifth, and final, Hubble service mission.
Among the most awe-inspiring images that Hubble has given us, are the so-called Deep Field views. As photographers know, light collected through a narrow aperture, requires a slow shutter speed. However if the camera is held still, an astounding picture results, where everything in the field of view is sharply in focus. Analogous images taken by Hubble show that the universe is literally teeming with galaxies of different colors, shapes and sizes. Some relatively close, galacticly-speaking, others unimaginably far away. They remind me of my first exposure to the microscopic world.
I was ten or eleven and my
parents had just given me a pretty good microscope (the cheap
plastic ones hadn't been invented yet). Sure, the slides that
came with it, of insect legs, stained sections of potato tubers,
and so on, were interesting, but I couldn't believe my eyes when
I looked at what was in water samples that I had collected from
the nearby marsh. It was teeming with life!
Light is fast, fastest actually, but it can still take many years for it to zip here from neighboring stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and millions of years to race between galaxies. Thus, light bearing the fingerprint of the organic molecules that it filtered through, was imprinted long ago. And the chemical reactions that built these molecules from their atomic constituents must have long preceded this cosmic scattering.
I very much like the message that Tennessee Governor, Phil Bredesen, who has a Harvard degree in physics, asked University of Tennessee President, John Petersen, who is a chemist, to relay to all UT students that were graduating in Knoxville a relatively short time ago: "God has given us a gift we cannot begin to comprehend a spark of consciousness in a universe so immense and so beautiful."
A refurbished Hubble can only stretch the immensity of the universe, and refine its beauty. Former NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, canned any such mission in 2004. He was not a scientist, nor an engineer. A year later he resigned, although one wonders if he was canned. NASA's new leader, Michael Griffin, has degrees in physics and engineering and has given the green light to an astronaut mission.
I look forward to sharing many more images, with many more students. Beauty is still only in the eyes of the beholders, but the more beholders, the better. Beauty is also available for you to behold, simply by visiting hubblesite.org on the Web. That's site, s-i-t-e, but what a sight it is.
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