I count myself among the many astrogeeks who (1) keep track of where all the visible planets are and who (2) hold a considered opinion regarding whether Pluto should have been downgraded from full planet status. (BTW, yes, Pluto deserves the demotion to dwarf planet; not just because it is even smaller than the dwarf planet Eris, but also because Pluto can’t walk upright like Goofy).
This month provides particularly interesting evenings for stargazers. Five planets — Mars, Neptune, Venus, Uranus, and Mercury — are all bunched up within a few degrees of each other from the perspective of Earth. Just after sundown, look low on the west horizon to see Venus, the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. Just above Venus will be the distinctly red planet Mars. The elusive Mercury will also be faintly visible in the moments immediately following sunset, just above the Sun itself. A sophisticated telescope is necessary to view Neptune and Uranus (hold the jokes). But if you miss that show, watch Jupiter emerge brightly on the east horizon just after sundown.
Regardless of their designation, all of these satellites share a feature with every other object in the Earth’s sky; They are devoid of life. That is because, in spite of atheists’ stubborn resistance to Occam’s Razor, it is impossible for life to arise spontaneously amidst the hostile, ever-deteriorating phenomena that comprise the Universe.
Our best understanding today is that everything — every atom, every rock, every planet, every star, every galaxy — emerged out of the explosion of all matter from a single position, the Big Bang. This theory does not assert that the Big Bang filled an empty and vast Outer Space with galaxies and nebulae. Rather, even Space itself did not exist until the Big Bang expanded the distribution of all matter, including the 3-dimensional capacity required to contain it all.
Planetary systems, such as our own Solar System, appear to have been formed as Big Bang debris collected in bands around a gathering of the most abundant element, hydrogen. The enormous volume of hydrogen that makes up about 91% of our Sun’s contents is so compressed by gravitational attraction that it results in a spherical storm of nuclear fusion. The Sun’s gravity simultaneously keeps the furnace burning while preventing the fusion reactions from exploding beyond its perfect shape and size.
Our solar system once resembled Saturn with distinct rings of matter circling around the Sun. Over time, gravitational attraction caused eight assorted bands of those elements to collect into larger bodies that eventually swept up all of the significant matter in their respective orbits. The resulting planets and their moons are unique in their composition. Mars is red because of the high content of iron. Jupiter has kept its famous beauty mark for as long as humans have been able to observe it through telescopes. Likely, Jupiter’s enormous swirling surface storm has lasted so long because the planet is primarily made of gas.
The Universe is ruled by the laws of physics. Scientists are hesitant to claim a complete list, but these generally include the laws of Motion, Gravity, Thermodynamics, Electrostatic, Conservation of Mass Energy, Conservation of Momentum, Invariance of the Speed of Light, and Quantum Mechanics (whatever that is). Mix them all together inside one Universe and you get — not life. Rather, you get the decay of radioactivity, the entropy of thermodynamics (2nd Law), the corrosion of iron alloys, and just in case you ever do come across a life form, biological decomposition. The Universe is violent, caustic, extremely hot, extremely cold, and everywhere uninhabitable with the notable exception of planet Earth.
The belittled Pluto will receive a visit this summer from NASA’s instrument spacecraft New Horizons, launched back in 2006. The platform of cameras and other sensors will come closest to Pluto on July 14. And the images that will arrive back here on Earth four and a half hours later will show Pluto’s fascinating properties as well as the same stark, uniform and uninhabitable environment that every extraterrestrial probe has encountered on planetary visits.
While matter consistently devolves throughout the Universe, the existence of life is undeniable. I am certain of this because my senses detect the vivid floral notes of a 2009 COHO Merlot in my wine glass, expertly viticultured in Napa Valley by Michael Black Vineyards and lovingly gifted to me by my daughter, Kim. But I could use a paring of some Moon cheese to complement this magnificent grape’s fullness.
While the Creator very evidently gave us life in the midst of all that cataclysmic activity, I fear that we frequently succumb to similar phenomena that deteriorates our habitat on more of a sociopolitical level.
The nova is an average-size star that has spent all of its own hydrogen energy and collapsed into the astro-politically incorrect term “white dwarf” state. Its intense gravity steals hydrogen from neighboring stars, creating a runaway fusion reaction back on the surface of the white dwarf. This is akin to O’Sullivan’s Law, which states that institutions always deteriorate into left-wing cultures when they get too friendly with white dwarfs. Like Michael Bloomberg. Examples of O’Sullivan’s Law include the Ford Foundation, every ivy league university, and even the United States Congress. There are currently 46 white dwarfs in the Senate and 188 white dwarfs in the House.
The red giant is a big star whose hydrogen has converted mostly into helium as a consequence of burning brightly for billions of years (nucleosynthesis). Like the nova, the star collapses into a much denser body. However, the enormous pressure of a larger star on its tremendous volume of helium results in a new nuclear reaction. Gravity does not hold the much sparser helium explosions as tightly as it did the previous hydrogen fusion. So the star grows many times its original size. And instead of simply warming its nearby orbiting planets, it swallows them. So while we love our political stars, it is dangerous to orbit around them. If they become too big a star feeding off their own hydrogen, their collapse will burn up the neighborhood around them. Also, helium makes people talk funny.
The black hole is an enormous star whose main sequence state has come to a collapsing end like the white dwarf and the red giant. However, due to its colossal mass, the collapsing never ends. A black hole’s density creates such tremendous gravity that it consumes everything nearby. Back here on Earth, people have resisted such demanding centralization for centuries. The American Revolutionaries broke free of the centralized government of King George III. Modern patriots resist the Democrats’ persistent march toward centralization of controlling government. And a tea party / liberty movement has arisen among the Republicans, seeking to steer the party away from centricity and back toward its philosophical, constitutionally conservative platform.
As science reaches further into Space, it becomes increasingly evident that our presence on Earth is unique and purposeful and worthy of the adventure. We can’t afford to waste our rare existence in subservience to novas, red giants, and black holes. Our Creator specifically designed this remarkable planet and our individual ambitions to take us “where no one has gone before.”
While we think of that quotation as related to the Star Trek franchise, it actually originated from a White House report published in 1958 in response to Sputnik. The context reads, “The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before. Most of the surface of the earth has now been explored and men now turn on the exploration of outer space as their next objective.”
Recently, some discussion has arisen within the ranks of astrogeekdom about whether Pluto really is smaller than Eris. This Summer, American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh will go where no one has gone before to see for himself. Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. He died in 1997. One ounce of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are being carried onboard the New Horizons spacecraft, well on its way to Pluto. Godspeed, Dr. Tombaugh.