In 1990, I was Junior at Amherst High School. I remember the buzz about a new telescope, a space telescope, that promised the deepest, clearest view of the universe. The telescope’s name was the Hubble Telescope and was touted as the 90’s equivalent of Apollo 11 in terms of historical relevance. Such bravado created high expectations about what the Hubble would see and discover!
Though Hubble was ready to launch before 1990, the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger not only pushed Hubble’s timeline back, but called into question (for some) the future of space exploration.
I was twelve years old when Challenger exploded. One of my teaches, Mrs. Marilyn Baker, was a college friend of Sharon Christa McAuliffe. As a sixth grade student at Amherst Elementary, I remember the feelings of confusion over what had happened and concern seeing one of my favorite teachers weep as this tragedy unfolded. The school had rolled out a large television in the hallway to watch the launch and celebrate Mrs. Baker’s friend, the first teacher in space! Nobody expected our public celebration would turn into an impromptu vigil for Christa.
I vaguely recall talking with my parents about the day’s events when I got home from school. Of the thoughts I remember of that day, I remember wondering, “Perhaps God doesn’t want us to explore space?” Thankfully, time revealed this thought to be nothing more than an understandable, adolescent reflexive fear, trying to make sense of the emotions I felt on that horrible day.
Though I can dismiss my childhood fears as a normal pattern of grief, I seem to recall that the Challenger tragedy did create societal worries about launching Hubble. Thankfully, the answers to Challenger’s disaster led to clear solutions, resurrecting the space program. Hubble was finally launched, with high expectations, promises of a historic shift in astronomy, answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, and when it was in space and took it’s first image… it didn’t work properly. In a moment that seemed to be right out of Star Wars when Han Solo tried to engage the hyper-drive, the first image from Hubble was… well… pretty bad!
The presumption of the Hubble was that once we would get outside of our atmosphere, we would have incredible images of space that were not only beautiful, but would unlock the mysteries of our universe. In the spirit of the theme of this series of reflections, it was presumed that astronomy from “down here” was limited and astronomy from “up there” would be nearly unlimited, giving us ultimate answers to ultimate questions. Thankfully, the Hubble’s optics issues were resolved and it more than delivered on its expectation of giving us stunning, never before seen views of the universe. Yet, these stunning images created a new problem: All these questions we thought we were going to resolve simply led to new, better, and deeper questions.
As I reflect on this part of astronomy’s history, I am reminded of a question I once ask Br. Guy, wondering if all of these advancements pointed to a “Golden Age” of astronomy? His answer was simple and profound, “As long as the human person is willing to look up and ask ‘What’s out there,’ we’ll always be in a ‘Golden Age’ of astronomy!”
A faith connection I see with the Hubble Space Telescope is that in order to get a better understand of our universe, we needed to get “outside of ourselves” to see things more clearly. Since the Earth’s atmosphere, the Sun, and other factors impede our ability to gaze upon the universe in a deeper way, getting outside of these limitations is key. Isn’t this need for an “outside/in” view true of the human person as well and is core to our spiritual and emotional growth? In order to really understand what it means to be human we need to get outside of ourselves, put ourselves in a place that is unknown to us, and view our lives from a different perspective? When we get this new perspective, it leads to new, better questions about who we are and who God made us to be. Just as astronomy finds itself in a Golden Age when we ask, What is out there, can we also see a Golden Age of faith as long as we continue to ask the question, What is ‘In here?’ When we get outside of ourselves to reflect from a new perspective, the irony is that it ultimately helps us understand the depths of who we are more clearly and in a deeper, more interesting way.
Since the human person has not ceased to ask the question, What’s out there, astronomy has continued to advance. The next big thing in space telescopes to continue the search for what is out there will be the anticipated 2021 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. I think it inappropriate to say the James Webb Space Telescope will make Hubble obsolete. If it does, I’d be happy to request NASA for training in the event it ever ends up on a NASA surplus auction with a chance for me to purchase it! (Sometime tells me there would be a long list of interested buyers that would bid me out rather quickly.) Still, with a life expectancy for Hubble that presumes a retirement sometime between 2030 and 2040, the James Webb Space Telescope truly is the next big thing!
One of James Webb’s goals is to try and answer the new questions that have risen due to Hubble’s research. Will the James Webb Space Telescope finally help us understand “everything about everything?” My gut, as a non-scientist, is to think that James Webb will do what Hubble did: Give us better, deeper questions, pointing us to a more fascinating understanding of the universe!
Of the many advancements James Webb has that allow it to see deeper into space than the Hubble, two advancements are basic enough for the astronomy novice to understand: The size of the primary mirror and it’s distance from the Sun. This mirror size is simple enough to explain. The James Webb Telescope’s mirror is bigger than the Hubble’s mirror. Telescopes are like “light buckets” and the bigger the “bucket” the more light you can collect. Since James Webb will be looking at incredibly faint objects, the bigger the light bucket the better!
The distance might be a little more confusing for people to understand. The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit the Sun at a distance that is beyond the moon’s furthest distance from the Sun. Why is this so? Doesn’t that make it impossible to repair if something goes wrong on the telescope as did the Hubble? What’s the reward for this risk and why is it being done?
The reason for this distance is rather simple: Heat and light. Since the James Webb is looking at some of the faintest objects in the night sky, heat and light can create big problems in imaging these objects. Therefore, the telescope needs to be far away from the Sun, Earth, and Moon, not allowing their light and heat to impede James Webb’s ability to image our universe. For example, I have been toying with the idea of making a small, hobby observatory. If there is one, clear suggestion I see with every home spun observatory, the primary concern is always the same: Make the observatory out of a material that doesn’t trap heat that will later be released at night. Just as rising heat can distort the images of my backyard telescope, so, too, does unwanted sunlight distort the faint objects that James Webb will be looking for. I find it interesting how some of the astronomy basics on Earth still have strong foundation with astronomy done in space.
The payoff for this attention given to heat and light will be that the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look deeper than any other telescope in use. Therefore, the continuation of the environment of this Golden Age of astronomy will continue to scratch the cultural itch with the question, What is out there?
Spiritual Exercise: Do you find that the more you get “outside of yourself” the better you understand what is within you? Do you find this inner exploration leads to ultimate answers to ultimate questions or do you develop new, better questions about who you are in God’s eyes? Pray with these questions this week and, as we continue to ask, What is out there, may this childlike wonderment continue to forward a true Golden Age of faith and science by exploring both the questions of What is down here? and What do I discover in my innermost being?
Happy Monday everyone!