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Space: When Did You Last Look Up?
Space is so massive that we can't even comprehend the distances involved in getting from one star to another.
But regardless of these incomprehensible distances, the one thing we all agree on is that when we look up on a crisp, dark night, what we can see is the whole of creation above us.
The pinpricks of light are stars in our own spiral galaxy - the Milky Way - and the smudges are either local nebula, supernova remnants or indeed, other galaxies, billions upon billions of light years away. We may see shooting stars, comets and even satellites reflecting the sun from orbit; many of us hope we'll see a madman in a blue box coming to show us the whole of space and time.
I've seen the Milky Way threading across the sky. I was at the beach one night on The Wirral. My friends and I were lying in the cool, fresh sand watching for shooting stars. At the yacht club it was stupidly dark and with the haze of lights from Birkenhead and Liverpool behind us, once our eyes had adjusted, we could see the cloudy ribbon of the heart of our galaxy spread out above us. We just lay there looking upward for hours, in speechless awe.
I've been in Cornwall and seen so many stars it was difficult to identify the constellations we all know so well. I've seen the long tail of comets fill the sky as they trace their lonely orbit around our star Sol. I've seen that big ball of orange fire magnified a thousand times through the atmosphere as it sank into the Pacific ocean and I've seen eclipses from my back garden in the middle of a sunny day.
Thanks to telescopes, we've been able to chart our exact position in the cosmos. The middle-aged, main sequence star we orbit around, the moons and planets that orbit with us. The asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, the Kuiper belt filled with short period comets and the Oort cloud filled with long period ones ... it's all out there for us to discover; and so much more.
For me, the Hubble telescope changed everything. Launched from another technical marvel - the Space Shuttle - being able to see objects over 13 billion light-years away means that we're looking at some of the first structures in the universe.
Fire up other orbital telescopes and you can see through the thick molecular clouds to the heart of the galaxy, patiently watch the dimming of nearby stars as planets orbit around them or even view our parent star in 3D as it converts hydrogen to helium and sends its life-giving light and warmth out into the Universe.
How strange and beautiful and bizarre and comforting and unnerving is all that? The more we see, the further we see, the more questions we have and the smaller and more insignificant we feel!
But we shouldn't feel small or in any way insignificant because we are part of it. Every atom of hydrogen in your body was created in the Big Bang! The vast majority of other atoms were forged in the heart of a star which exploded billions of miles away (and billions of years ago) spreading heavy elements like carbon and iron across the vast, empty spaces. Astronomers believe that Sol is a third generation star, so how long were specks of you floating around in deep space for?
And then this cloud of cold gas and fine dust was just sitting there minding its own business and two specs of dust got disturbed by the gravitational pull of something slightly (or massively) bigger that passed by one day and the cloud started to collapse in under its own gravity until ... BOOM ... the sun ignited its nuclear furnace and the planets began to form around it.
Half a billion years later, one of our companion proto-planets hit us a glancing blow, ripping off part of our crust and creating our sister moon. Roll forward some more and a bunch of comets hit the third rock from the sun and delivered lots of water and other organic molecules.
Then, following 3.5 billion years of evolution where lots and lots of things had to go very right and in the correct order, you were getting your bottom spanked in a hospital one day and taking your very first breath in a brave new world.
Space. It's mind-bogglingly massive! And yet, at the same time, it's just so very, very small. We're all made of star stuff; born in the heart of a supernova. We are all connected to each other, to the planet, to the solar system, to the galaxy and to the whole of space and time.
All we have to do is look up ... and feel it!
Love, light and logic ...
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