A week ago or so, my wife Wendy was looking at one of her favorite informational web sites, and there was a photo posted of the Horsehead Nebula that was recently taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The picture was incredible, and displayed an unexpected transparency to the formation, that previous images show as being more opaque in appearance.
In case you aren’t aware of what a nebula is, it’s defined as “an interstellar ‘cloud’ of dust, hydrogen, helium, and other ionized gases.”
In case you’re not aware of Hubble, it’s a sophisticated telescope that orbits the Earth after being carried into position by the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. It’s named after renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble, and enjoys the luxury of peering out into the heavens without the burden of distortion caused by particles and other distractions inherent to a planet’s atmosphere (which hinders even the best ground-based units).
While she was checking the picture out, I asked, “do you know how big that thing is?”
When she said she really didn’t, I simply said, “it’s way bigger than our solar system.”
That was a major understatement.
The human brain can only go so far in understanding the magnitude of God’s creation, and its immensity is a difficult thing to grasp. But I’ve always enjoyed trying.
The solar system our Earth is part of isn’t small by human standards, but its size is, in fact, plausibly
measurable in miles. At its outer edge is Pluto, a familiar heavenly body (that either is or isn’t a planet, depending on what scientific agency you listen to) that revolves around the Sun in kind of an oval pattern, at an average distance of about 3.67 billion miles.
That’s pretty far, considering the fact most of us who live in these parts don’t make it to Springfield more than once or twice a month because of the 90-mile trek involved.
But our solar system is puny, really.
Creation is so big that when you get outside our little neighborhood, it’s no longer practical to measure distances in miles. So vast are the spaces in what is aptly called “space” (that’s literally what it is – nothingness, or space, between objects) that time becomes the only practical form of measurement, and the standard is light years.
We hear the term light year relatively often without really stopping to ponder what it means. But its meaning is simple: the distance light travels in a year.
And since light travels at about 186,000 miles a second, that’s one heck of a long way. To illustrate, moving along at the snail’s pace of about 17,000 miles per hour, our Apollo astronauts made it to the moon in about three days. Light takes less than a second-and-a-half.
Move over Jeff Gordon.
So, back to the Horsehead Nebula. Shaped like a horse’s head and located in the constellation Orion, it’s about 18 light years long (or tall) and 2.7 light years wide (and deep). Man, that’s like a mess bigger than our solar system.
And it’s 1,500 light years away from our home coordinates. If we leave now, well, let’s just say we ain’t getting there before the Saturday matinee, or even Sunday supper. In fact, we ain’t getting there, period (unless Scotty can coax warp 10 out of the old propulsion system one more time).
Another fair-sized nebula is the Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus. Believed to be formed by a supernova (the explosion of a giant star), it’s 10 light years in diameter. To put that in perspective, if Earth was the size of a basketball, the Crab Nebula would be the size of Earth. Staying with the hoops theme, I’m thinking God can easily “palm” Earth.
Big? Those nebulas (or is it nebulae?) ain’t nuthin’.
Our solar system sits in the outer portion of the Milky Way Galaxy, a spiral-shaped gathering of hundreds of billions of stars that’s 120,000 light years in diameter. Geez, Scotty, can’t we get warp 50 out of this bucket of bolts? At warp 10, we won’t make it to the other side for generations.
And in case those crazy-big numbers don’t do the trick, this puts the size of God’s creation way out of the realm of true understanding: there are billions upon billions of galaxies, each one harboring hundreds of billions of stars, and each one located thousands upon thousands of light years from its nearest neighbor.
That kind of makes issues like a leaky roof or a dog trampling a bed of pansies seem sort of insignificant. But when you consider the size of what we’re a part of – I mean really consider it – insignificance is the only plausible conclusion to our existence.
Behold the awesome power of the Creator, to whom a light year is only a blip on the radar of infinity.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: email@example.com.