Since childhood when I got my first refractor telescope for Christmas, I've been fascinated with space. My first look at our moon, seeing the rings of Saturn and the four primary moons around Jupiter, were mind-blowing experiences for me. I remember those moments as I do my first car or graduating from college or my wedding day.
Space is special. It's all there is. What we humans think of as "time" really doesn't exist. It's just something we've imposed upon the workings of space to make sense of our lives. Time is useful, but that doesn't make it real outside of a human context.
But, space, well...space is compellingly real. I look at our moon and see an object just as real and tangible as the back of my hand. I am looking through almost a quarter million miles of space. There it is, just on the other side of all that space.
The same with Saturn or Jupiter, only now you're talking hundreds of millions of miles of space. But, you and I can see them in the night sky, if we know where to look, just as if we were looking at a light through the window of a house across a distant, grassy field.
But when we look at any of these objects, we do not see them as they are NOW. They are so far away that it takes "time" for their light to reach us. The light and heat of our Sun, for example, hits us about 8 minutes after it appears upon its surface. That's how long it takes light to travel 93,000,000 miles (the Sun's distance from us) to meet our senses.
Now, let's go further out into space. Let's go to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. When we look at Sirius (actually two stars in close proximity - a binary star) we are seeing it as it was about 8.6 YEARS ago. That's because Sirius is roughly 50,500,000,000,000 miles away from us.
It is only across the span of space that time has any sort of "reality." Many prefer to use the term "spacetime" when talking about the vastness of space. But, to me, that's a cop-out. No matter how you cut it, we're talking about DISTANCE here. That's what space is, the distance between whatever and yourself.
Space has often been poetically compared with the immense oceans of the earth. If we are to take that analogy and consider human space exploration then we have physically just placed our feet in the surf. We've "waded" to our moon, we've "dabbled" with extended time in space with Skylab, Mir and the International Space Station now under construction. Compared to where we were at the beginning of this century we have walked all the way from the desert to the beach. But, we still don't know how to swim.
Mentally we have gone much further, however. With advances in optics, improvements in our abilities to gather data from the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum, numerous invaluable space probes and satellites including the magnificent images of the Hubble Space Telescope we can practically see back to the beginning of time (actually, and more accurately, to the beginning of space).
Today our knowledge grows by leaps and bounds. Astronomy and space exploration continue to mature, evolve and contribute to our understanding of the universe and, in no small sense, ourselves. For, as Carl Sagan loved to point out, it is a scientific fact that you and I are made of starstuff. We are indisputably linked to all that light dancing around in the colossal distances of space.
I'll revise and expand this text going forward. Until then, here's some interesting astronomy and space exploration links. Enjoy.
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This month in Astronomy.
Jason's Astronomy Home Page.
Cornell University Astronomy Page.
Knowledge of Stellar Distances: Neat diagrams.
The Astronomy Cafe: For the "astronomically disadvantaged." Lots of good basic stuff.
Bill Arnett's Astronomy Pages: This guy has put together several nice sites.
The European Southern Observatory Home Page.
History of Astronomy Home Page.
Large Scale Structure Home Page: A remarkable Web project by the Copenhagen University Observatory. Shows you how B-I-G the universe really is!
The Lunar and Planetary Institute Home Page.
NASA's Space Science Headlines Home Page.
Interactive Online NGC Catalog.
Sky & Telescope Magazine.
The Hubble Space Telescope Home Page: Endulge yourself with the most exciting visual astronomy tool in human history (so far.)
Constellations and Their Stars: This site contains a wealth of useful information for folks (like me) who want to know more about what they're looking at out there.
The Astronomer Online: An Astro-cyberzine.
Celestron Telescopes Home Page: Makers of the C150-HD, my personal telescope of choice, and many other fine astronomical equipment.
NASA's Home Page.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Home Page.
The European Space Agency's Home Page.
The Cassini Mission's Home Page: Find out the latest on this exciting journey to Saturn now underway.
The Galileo Mission's Home Page: Cassini's predecessor has been zipping around in Jupiter's orbit for a number of years sending us incredible photos and data on the Jovian moons and our planetary system's largest member.
The Outer Planets/Solar Probe Project: A mission in the making.
The Magellan Mission to Venus: Interesting information on a successfully completed mission.
Mark Wade's ENCYCLOPEDIA ASTRONAUTICA: Wow! This site contains detailed information about every space launch, every launch vehicle, every launch location, every astronaut, every probe, every satellite, etc. etc. etc. from every nation since the beginning of spaceflight, plus a lot more. Like I said, wow!
The Mars Exploration Program Home Page: Get the latest photos from the Mars Surveyor Program and more.
The Mir Space Station Home Page.
An Overview of the International Space Station.
NASA's International Space Station Page: Follow the progress of this major global effort as it is assembled in space.
NASA's Human Spaceflight Page: Current and historical information of interest.
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory Project.
Spacezone: A great cybersource for all aspects of space exploration.
NASA's Ulysses Home Page: Launched by the Space Shuttle Discovery in October, 1990. It's still out there sending back data.
The Voyager Project Home Page: The ancestor of deep space exploration. It's still functioning and they're planning to receive data for another 30 years!
The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Home Page.
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