The beginning of the New Year is sometimes tinged with reflection and trepidation. Though most people won’t be looking back on 2021 with too much nostalgia, another year has passed and as Benjamin Franklin said; “Lost time is never found again”.
The preciousness of time is often forgotten amidst everyday humdrum and banality, but new beginnings offer opportunities, resolutions and a clean canvas upon which dreams are painted.
A great source of excitement for humble earthlings this year is the long awaited potential answer to the eternal question- ‘are we alone’? The James Webb Space Telescope which was launched on the Ariana 5 rocket on Christmas Day from the tropical rainforests of French Guiana is en route to record the edge of time itself. Within six months we could be seeing habitable exoplanets and the formation of galaxies with far greater clarity than ever before, thanks to revolutionary technology and advanced infrared resolution.
The complex telescope, which cost 10bn dollars and 25 years to construct, is currently undergoing a reverse origami-like transformation, contorting and unfurling as it attempts to unpack its five-layered sun shield, while hurtling through space to reach Sun Earth L2, its final deployment, 1.5million kilometres from earth.
It’s mind blowing and humbling and puts into perspective how small we are, how short one year is, how many lightyears the telescope will span, but how big the dreams of humanity can be.
Currently, ‘we’ see no more than five percent of the cosmos, a scientist at the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile, informed me as I watched it open at dusk to point towards the infinite universe. For the rest ‘we speculate’, he added. “Cosmology is trying to figure out the shape of an iceberg, after only seeing its tip”. It is like a metaphor for our capabilities. We are small, but our possibilities are limitless, as these feats in exploration, so big and unfathomable prove.
But with speculation in mind, I can’t help but imagine how earth-like planets will look. How advanced are they? How do the beings on them sustain themselves? How does gravity affect their appearance? Is David Bowie there? Do they know about us? What do they make of our earth?
Imagine a parallel universe, where earth exists, but without ExxonMobil, Meta, plastic wrapped bananas and people watching other people watch TV?
At the VLT, I observed stars forming 13.6 billion lightyears from earth. One lightyear – the distance a beam of light travels in a single earth year – equates to approximately 9.7 trillion kilometres. I got to glimpse into the past, and see 4billion times further than my eye could see. Then, when I went outside, into the clear Southern hemisphere night sky, undisturbed by light pollution and I saw and photographed the Milky Way like I’ve never seen it before. Other days are less fun and fulfilling and may or may not feature a trip to the shops to buy milk.
The secrets of the James Webb and the soon to be completed groundbreaking mega telescope, the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), also in Chile, will reveal, will be exciting beyond words. Nasa’s administrator, Bill Nelson said; “It’s going to give us a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that’s eternal.”
Space exploration is more than billionaires in phalluses. The idea of images like that of the ‘Pillars of Creation’, of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, which was taken by the Hubble Spacecraft in 1995 will come back in a matter of months, is exhilarating.
The universe is a source of endless fascination and we’re living in a new era of space exploration. This would make you think of one man -the great Albert Einstein, who prophesised: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”