Only we can look to the stars

Apr 8, 2016 By Robert H. Peck, Staff Writer

Friday evening, Dr. Scott Acton speaks to a crowd at Central Wyoming College about his work on the James Webb Space Telescope, a massive and ingenious observatory set to launch into space in 2018. It's one of the biggest, if not the biggest, astronomical projects ever taken on by humanity, and more of us ought to know what it is.

I urge you to make the trip up and hear what Dr. Acton, a unique person on the whole of planet Earth, and an authentic hometown hero for Riverton, has to say about Webb (he also happens to be early in a planned 15,000-mile bike ride around the world to spread the good word on the Webb telescope).

But in these difficult times, it's tempting to wonder why such a project is worth the effort. Why do this when so many problems here on Earth are left unsolved? Couldn't our attention be better spent on those?

In honor of Scott Acton, and as a way to answer that question and wrap our heads around why astronomy should matter to us, let's talk about the Webb Telescope's predecessor: the famed Hubble Space Telescope, one of the best-known scientific devices ever created.

Edwin Hubble, for whom the telescope is named, was a titan in the field of astronomy. In fact, he practically invented the field of "extragalactic" astronomy--studying stars and objects outside our own galaxy.

Hubble's most famous discovery, which the researcher grafted together based on minute astronomical observations begun in the late 1910s, presented humanity with a chilling realization: All the stars and planets and objects in the universe are expanding away from one another, more and more rapidly as time goes on.

Put another way, we get lonelier and lonelier all the time. And there's nothing we can do about it.

This discovery, now governed by the principles known as Hubble's Law, was so radical that it contradicted some of Albert Einstein's theories of relativity.

But, at the end of the day, Hubble was right, and Einstein wrong. Einstein later called his errors "the biggest blunder of [his] life."

It's little wonder, then, that when it came time to create a telescope whose primary use would be to study very, very far away things, the device should be named for Edwin Hubble--the ultimate pioneer in researching objects beyond our galaxy. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched into low-Earth orbit in 1990, does just that. Hubble's mechanics are such that it isn't really suited to examining things close to us--say, stuff in our own solar system. Instead, it peers deeply into the furthest visible reaches of our universe, striving to understand what's out there.

In doing this, Hubble literally looks back in time. Light from the stars it looks at has taken millions, or billions, of years to reach us, so we see far away objects as they looked when the light left them, millions, or billions, of years ago.

Hubble studies not only how things look far away from us, but how things looked long ago, giving us clues about how our universe formed, and what we might expect next.

But why? Why spend the money and time peering back into the origins of space?

Sure, Edwin Hubble was smart, and the Hubble Telescope is a cool machine, but do even their most astonishing discoveries really matter? We are here now, for better or worse, and we've got problems on Earth that Hubble can't even begin to help us fix.

At this point, the answer becomes pretty subjective. But I'll give you my view on it anyway.

In all our studies of the universe, with Hubble or a telescope here on Earth, or anything else over the thousands of years people have been looking up at the sky, we've made many, many wonderful discoveries. But there are still things we haven't found yet, and one of them is more life like us.

It's probably out there, somewhere very far away. Space is so large that, statistically speaking, it's much less likely that we're the only intelligent animals that will ever live than it for smart aliens to exist, at some point, somewhere in the billions of stars and solar systems beyond our own.

But that doesn't mean we aren't rare. We are, in fact, among the rarest things we know about.

There are many millions of huge stars much larger than the sun, or black holes that suck in everything around them, or nebulae or comets or asteroids, or big gas giant planets the size of Jupiter or larger.

We've found so many of all those things that we can't really even begin to count how many there might be.

But we've only found smart life form like us once. As far as we know, we are the only things nearby that have ever, or will ever, think.

And that means that we might be the only ones who ever get close enough to the stars and planets in this part of space to see them, photograph them, understand what they look like and how they work.

We're the only ones who will ever see the universe from this angle, too: the light Hubble sees reaches us in a way it can only be seen from this spot.

It's a unique opportunity, a privilege, to experience this stuff. And if we don't take it on, it's not likely that anything else will ever pick up our slack.

As Scott Acton probably will say, it's wrong to say that the Webb Telescope will be replacing Hubble. But it will be continuing the work Hubble started: research that only we humans will ever be able to do.

If that isn't justification enough, I can't imagine what would be.

Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck graduated recently from Yale University. He is a graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.