Category Archives: Astronomy

The Sands of Mars

In the past, I have written on the subject of ‘Faith and the Suspension of Disbelief‘. The ability to accept and enjoy fantasy stories also confers on us the ability to believe more easily the stories we read about Jesus in the Bible, and the testimonies we hear from people who have encountered God in a special way.

We have another ability as humans, too. It’s the sense of Awe and Wonder. God is amazingly awesome and supremely wonderful – in that He’s full of Wonder. If we think about Him and His love for any amount of time, we find ourselves standing in awe and wonder at how amazing He is.

I want to share a picture with you that I find absolutely remarkable. Similarly to pictures in the post I made recently about various astronomical ideas, this photo too evokes in me a strong sense of awe and wonder.

This is a photo taken on the surface of Mars, by the Mars exploration rover ‘Opportunity‘. (You can see the original image and full commentary here).

Think about what that means for a moment. This photograph was taken on the surface of another planet. The camera was made on Earth and sent to Mars on an unbelievably clever piece of machinery, taking a good couple of years to get there. Then using more amazing technology, the camera was landed on Mars on a really clever little robot* which is even now, as I write this, driving around the surface of that alien planet just like something out of Star Trek, taking pictures like this one.

In this age where everything seems taken for granted, and incredibly awesome things are used for evil purposes – like how text messaging and Facebook are used to hurt others – I still find it incredible that people can be blasé about an image like this. This is incredible wonder and awe, right here in front of us. It’s another part of God’s Creation, where no human has yet set foot, but which we can explore by proxy by sending an incredible robotic probe hundreds of millions of miles to go and have a look round on our behalf. And God has given we humans the desire, the drive, the ability and the skills to make this happen. God is said to have made humans in His image. How well does this fabulous photo show us that indeed we are capable of such amazing feats; surely we are indeed made in the image of God!

Now is that not something incredible?

I realise that my title for this piece is also the title of a classic science fiction book by my late hero, the writer and futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke. I just thought it evocative, so I used it, although I remembered shortly afterwards that Clarke had already coined the phrase. I like to create good titles for my blog pieces; it just so happened that this one had already been invented. Sorry, Sir Arthur, but also thanks…

*The Opportunity explorer has been working on the surface of Mars for longer than thirteen years, having been designed to function for only 90 days. For more information on this remarkable little robot, visit the Wikipedia page about it.


Shadow of the Earth

I love Astronomy; the study of planets, moons, stars, space and the Cosmos in general*. I am a member of my local Astronomy Society, and I have been passionately interested in this branch of science since I was about seven years old. Yes, you can blame the Apollo moon landings for that 😉

The amazing photo above is a time-lapse composite showing the Moon passing through the Earth’s shadow during a Lunar eclipse. That’s when the full Moon passes ‘behind’ the Earth and the Earth blocks out most of the light of the Sun shining on it, and so the normally bright face of the full Moon darkens and, usually, turns a dull red colour. It takes a few hours for the Moon to pass through the Earth’s shadow, so each of these Moon images in the composite shot will have been taken maybe an hour or ninety minutes apart. And you can clearly see the shape of the Earth’s huge shadow, stretching out into the blackness of space and away from the Sun. Anyone can perform this simple experiment given a suitable camera, a tripod and a clock. And also, of course, a knowledge of when the Eclipse is going to happen, but you can find this out easily on the Internet.

This, to me, is one of the reasons why I love Astronomy so much. To the naked eye, wonders like Lunar eclipses are visible manifestations of the wonders of the creativity of God. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands”. And, no matter at what level you explore the Cosmos, new and fascinating things keep being discovered. The probability of water on Mars. The chance of life on Mars, Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) or Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons). Exotic objects such as quasars and black holes; things theorised on paper and mathematically are actually being observed as realities in the depths of space. And all this created by our God, and I think this exploration is actually a picture of how we will spend eternity exploring the amazing greatness of God our Creator and His Creation.

This is not a worldview that is incompatible with Science, either; incorporating God into a scientific worldview is not a problem, provided you don’t try to factor Him into your calculations!

One of the current fads that really annoys me, though, is the recent upsurge of the ‘Flat Earth’ (FE) movement; people who believe that the Earth is flat and not a huge ball as we know it is. I am not going to even go there as to why they think that, nor am I going to do their ideas the honour of trying to debunk them. I don’t argue with these people; sadly, one of the downsides of the Internet is that anything written on it seems to carry equal weight, whether written by a real expert, or some tosspot living over his mother’s garage who knows diddly-squat.

And these people will joyfully, freely and libelliously diss anyone who doesn’t agree with them. But to me the main problem is that they believe that there is a giant conspiracy afoot – which means they are essentially accusing whole swaths of the human race of lying. This is unacceptable. Their conspiracy theory is one where anyone who not only does not agree with them, but knows for a fact that the Earth is a globe, is ‘in’ on the conspiracy and is sworn to secrecy. So, they say that basically people like astronomers, Pilots, sailors, and especially NASA, the American Space Agency, are all part of this giant conspiracy, to keep their knowledge that the Earth is indeed flat a closely-guarded secret. In other words, everyone who is in a position to know this global Earth as a fact is automatically disqualified.

Convenient, eh?

I can categorically state that nowhere in my Pilot training, any of the flying textbooks, lectures, teaching or anything else have I seen or heard anything stating that the Earth is actually flat, and that I have to keep that a secret. You simply couldn’t keep such a huge secret as that, with such a vast number of people involved. This is, in my opinion, the number-one piece of evidence that debunks their entire conspiracy theory completely flat, pun not intended.

According to these people, all the photos taken of the Earth from space are fake, as of course were the Moon landings. Satellites do not exist, neither does the International Space Station, despite these objects being visible to the naked eye. (Quite what they intend to do when next they switch on their satnav is beyond me).

Well, let me tell you, I have personally conducted experiments and observations to show that the Earth is a globe, and I have satisfied myself as to this fact. Anyone can do this, given the right methods, a bit of basic equipment, and a little knowledge. If you want to do this, just Google ‘how do I prove that the Earth is a sphere’ or something of that ilk.**

And don’t share your results with the Flat Earthers (FE’s). They will attempt to ‘destroy’ your evidence by saying various derogatory things about you, because that’s their only defence against facts. Interesting, as they often say on their sites, ‘Do experiments! Don’t believe what the Government tell you! Work it out for yourself!’ – but when you do, they don’t believe your results – unless, of course, your results indicate a Flat Earth. Idiots.

The worst thing of all is when FE’s call on the Bible and/or the Christian faith for ‘evidence’ supporting their daft ideas. Claiming, of course, Scriptural inerrancy and literalism (that is, that there are no mistakes in the Bible and the whole thing is true and literal), they claim the support of passages mentioning such things as ‘the four corners of the Earth’ and ‘He sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth’, that the Earth has ‘pillars’ for its foundations and it cannot be moved (try telling them that when there’s an earthquake!). So, why is this bad? It’s because it puts the Scriptures, and those rational believers who do not believe in Flat Earth but stil believe in Jesus, in a bad light. Flat Earthers, by calling on the Scriptures for support, not only do the Scriptures a disservice in that they were never intended to prove anything scientific, let alone a Flat Earth, but they also make the Christian faith look less credible by their actions and claims. If this is what Christians believe, says the enquiring Astronomer, then I want nothing to do with it.

This is not a new problem. Indeed, even the renowned St. Augustine noted in 400AD that there were people bringing the faith into disrepute by doing exactly the things these FE’s are doing. To quote him,

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

“Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

“The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field in which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

“Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

[Latter quotation from 1Tim1:7; this piece about Augustine found here]

I think that’s an absolutely amazing quotation. It tells us that even over 1,600 yeas ago, there were ignorant people (in its literal meaning that they are without knowing) who were discrediting the Christian faith by making unfounded assertions about certain things, purporting to ‘know’ stuff, and supporting it from Scripture – and that in the face of the experts of the day who really did know what they are talking about. Sounds familiar?

An education on the Internet is not a proper education. You not only have to know things, but you also have to know how those things fit together. And this is the problem with the FE’s. They don’t.

I’m sorry to go on about this; it’s not intended to be an extended rant. The only pictures the FE’s have are ‘artist’s impressions’. But when I see amazing pictures like the one at the top of this post, or like the beautiful pictures ‘The Blue Marble’ and ‘Earthrise’, I think, not only, what a shame that these FE oiks prefer to think of these wonderful images as fake pictures, but also that it is far simpler to believe the global Earth than to try to invent excuse after excuse as to why the Earth is flat. Some people need to go and get a Life. And Photoshop wasn’t available in 1972 or 1968…**

Here is the photo known as ‘The Blue Marble’, taken from Apollo 17 on December 7th, 1972:

Photo is clickable for full zoom

…and the iconic photo ‘Earthrise‘, taken from Apollo 8 on December 24th, 1968:

Photo clickable for full zoom

The remarkable thing about Earthrise, one of the most viscerally moving photos in history, is that it was taken from a spacecraft which was in orbit around the Moon. In exactly the same way as our Sun comes up over the horizon every morning, so the Earth was rising over the horizon for the three men in the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Wow!

And finally, here’s the first ever photo of a rising Earth over the Moon, taken by the unmanned Lunar Orbiter 1 Reconnaisance Probe:

Photo clickable for full zoom

These are remarkable pictures and I have included them in order to finish this on, not only a positive note, but in fact an awestruck note. We began with the awe of the Earth’s shadow; we end with the awe of the whole planet.

So often in these days, we lose our sense of wonder over so much of what we see. Key to my loving being a scientist is that I have never lost my sense of wonder, and I never will. These photos have a Wow! factor unlike any other images in history – they show the crucible of the entirety of human history represented as a beautiful blue ball floating against the inky-black backdrop of deep space.

How’s that for wondrous?

I leave you with one final picture (and this time I mean it!); this one is an ‘artist’s impression’ (Like the FE’s have. Lollz). Here is what the Earth would look like from the Moon during a Lunar eclipse. The Earth would be eclipsing (covering) the Sun, in the same way as the Moon does during one of the solar eclipses that we are so familiar with here on Earth. The ground is a dull red colour because the Earth’s atmosphere transmits the red light better, and so the Moon’s surface appears red. And, seen from the Earth, as in the header image, the eclipsed Moon is indeed red. Here’s the picture:

*Astronomy, as distinct from astrology, which is essentially fortune-telling by the movements and position of heavenly bodies. That doesn’t fit with me, either as a scientist (it is simply unprovable) and as a man of faith (God controls things, not the stars)

**Oh, go on then. For a taster, take a look here. But this is not how I did it.

***Flat Earthers claim that the space photos from the sixties and early seventies, or indeed all space photos showing things they don’t like, are done on Photoshop. Which didn’t exist back in the sixties and seventies. Duh.

Comments have been disabled for this post, so no Flat Earthers can use my blog as a platform for their tripe 😉