In honor of the 50th anniversary of humans stepping foot on the moon, this month at BioLogos we are celebrating space. As an astronomer, I’m excited by what we continue to discover about not just the moon but by our solar system, galaxy, and universe. Here are 6 recent astronomical highlights.
Total Solar Eclipse (2017)
Two years ago, my family traveled to Oregon to view the total solar eclipse. I had seen photos before, but seeing it in person was another thing entirely! (If you want to see one yourself, you can make plans now for the next total solar eclipse). The air grew cool, the last of the sunlight faded like a dimmer switch, and then we could remove our eclipse glasses. The corona of the sun blazed forth! It was so much brighter than I expected. The moon was deep black, looking like a hole in the sky (captured well in the above photo by Shawn Quinn). Everyone on that Oregon hillside was cheering in amazement and filled with awe and wonder.
For Christians, wonders like this fill us with more than a generic sense of awe, because we know that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). The universe didn’t appear on its own, or arise from an impersonal force, but was created by a Person. And that Person is Jesus Christ. In him all things were made (John 1:3, Colossians 1:16). The Creator of this amazing universe is also the lover of our souls.
Juno probe at Jupiter (2016-present)
In the last 50 years, humanity has rocketed dozens of space probes around our solar system. We’ve sent robots driving around Mars, spacecraft flying past Pluto, and more. The human passion for exploration makes us want to personally set foot on other worlds, but with probes we can learn more for a fraction of the cost. Right now, the spacecraft Juno is orbiting Jupiter. Juno is studying the interior of the gas giant and photographing its cloudy surface. Jupiter is known for its vast cloud storm, the Great Red Spot, but past missions couldn’t photograph the details of smaller storms. The new images include scientific puzzles like the black spot in the blue clouds shown above. Beyond science, these stunning images reveal an extravagance of beauty. The swirls of blue and cream in the image are as beautiful as Italian marble or an abstract painting. And these amazing cloud formations existed long before humans were around to see them! God seems to enjoy creating beauty and taking delight in the created order. As Rich Mouw preached at our 2019 conference, God’s capacity for wonder exceeds ours!
First image of a black hole (2019)
Just a few months ago, astronomers took the first picture of a black hole. For years, we’ve known that black holes existed; we could even observe stars in orbit and material glowing as it fell in. But this year we finally photographed the sphere of a black hole itself. The black ball in the middle of the picture shows the location of the “event horizon.” Inside this surface, gravity is so strong that nothing can get out, not even light. This particular black hole is in a large nearby galaxy (video zoom into the M87 galaxy) and it is huge! The black hole is 7 billion times more massive than the sun and 5 times larger than our entire solar system.
Traveling near a black hole is dangerous; the intense gravitational field pulls everything apart. Yet powerful black holes also tells us of the glory of God, as much as the beautiful images of the eclipse and Jupiter’s clouds. God’s creation is good, but it is not always safe (Job 38-39). Think of the stark beauty of Death Valley or Mt. Everest. God is also glorified by places of power and danger, like this black hole.
Fly through a Nebula (2015)
In 2015, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 25th anniversary with the release of some special images. I love this animation, in which we travel thousands of lightyears to the Westerlund2 star cluster and its parent nebula. After flying past nearby stars, we get close-up views of the cloud of gas and dust. Different types of gas are glowing in the light of the stars, producing the beautiful colors. The video zooms us close to finger shapes in the cloud, each of which ends in a dark clump. In each dark clump, a baby star is forming! This nebula is a stellar nursery, adding stars to the cluster over millions of years.
God has the authority and power to pop a new star cluster into existence, but here we see him choosing something different. He works with the ingredients he’s already created, drawing on the gas and dust to make new stars. It is not a fast or efficient process, but God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Theologians call this God’s mediated creation.
On reflection, it doesn’t surprise me. In the Bible, we see God working slowly with his people over thousands of years. Jesus didn’t use brute force to create the church, but worked with the imperfect disciples, over time, inviting them to be part of the coming of the kingdom. That’s the God I know in my own life, and the God I see in the formation of new stars.
Cosmic Background (2018)
This image is a baby picture of the entire universe. It shows the latest data from the Planck telescope, which detects the heat radiation leftover from the Big Bang. This heat from the early universe is still arriving at Earth from all directions (the image above shows the whole sky, like an oval map shows the whole earth). The details of this image have been a treasure trove of information about the beginning of our universe.
When I was a grad student in the 90s, astronomers debated whether the universe was 10 billion years old or 20 billion years old. In 2018, the Planck team published an age with incredible precision. We now know the universe is 13.79+-0.02 billion years—that’s less than 1% uncertainty! (Read more about evidence for an ancient cosmos.)
This great age seems at odds with the 6 days of creation described in Genesis 1. When I was a grad student, I had to wrestle with this for the first time. Fortunately, I found some writings by biblical scholars and learned about the ancient cultural context of Genesis and the 6 days. For the first audience, the main message was the God Yahweh was the sovereign creator of everything, not the gods of the Egyptians or Babylonians. The main point for us today is the same: God is the creator, and science helps us learn about his handiwork. A scientific discovery cannot replace God. God created our universe 13.79 billion years ago, with intent and purpose, to bring about all the rich structure and life we see today.
Galaxy Cluster Abell370 (2017)
I’ve studied galaxy clusters for much of my astronomical career. This gorgeous image shows the galaxy cluster Abell370, about 4 billions light years away. Each of the yellow blobs is an entire galaxy of billions of stars. The largest galaxies here are hundreds of times larger than our own Milky Way! What you can’t see in this picture is the vast cloud of hot hydrogen gas filling the space between the galaxies, and the even more massive cloud of dark matter. We don’t know what the dark matter is made of, except that it isn’t ordinary matter and doesn’t interact with light. All of this mass causes a strong gravitational field that distorts space itself. Did you notice the blue arcs in the image? Their light comes from small galaxies in the background, which is distorted into an arc as it passes through the curved space.
While we know a lot, there are always new puzzles to solve. How do the gas and galaxies interact? How did the faint blue galaxies form? What is the dark matter made of? But astronomers don’t find these questions discouraging. Scientists are always eager to learn new things.
That actually reminds me of walking with God. The apostle Paul wrote “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom 11:33). Paul reminds us that we will never fully know God. And yet, everything we really need to know we have already seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus said “If you know me, you will know my Father as well.” (John 14:7).
I hope you’ve enjoyed these 6 astronomy highlights and my reflections as Christian astronomer. Of course these aren’t all of my favorites! Number 7 would be the discovery of gravitational waves. What are your favorites? Share your thoughts on the BioLogos Forum!