If you're looking for the coolest Pacific news this week, I'll offer the latest from Hawaii. An observatory on the volcanic mountain of Mauna Kea has espied what is being billed as the oldest galaxy yet observed, said to be around 12.9 billion years old.
Just as we like to go atop Mt. Tapochau and peer off into the distance, enjoying what we can see nearby and imagining what we can't see over the horizon, the astronomers are peering so far these days they're getting close to seeing the beginnings of the universe itself.
Mt. Tapochau isn't tall enough for that task. But Mauna Kea stands 13,796 feet high, above the haze and within a lofty band of dry and stable atmosphere. This makes for good viewing conditions. A few serious scopes there are used by an international assortment of astronomers.
You've probably heard of the Hubble telescope. It is in orbit, which puts it above the muddling effect of the Earth's atmosphere. However, terrestrially-based observatories are still chugging along. In fact, the Europeans have announced plans to build the world's largest telescope in Chile, 129 feet in diameter, dubbed the, uh, European Extremely Large Telescope. Hey, I don't name the stuff, folks, I just pass along the information.
Just this month agreements are being inked for that project. It will take 10 or 11 years to build. It's more than a big telescope, it's a complicated one, employing mechanisms to try to counteract the effects of atmospheric interference. Well, the telescope is a European invention to begin with, so there you have it. Oh, they also have a space telescope in orbit, too.
Anyway, back to the Mauna Kea news. The discovery was made by a Japanese team. There are some rival claims to having spotted other “oldest” galaxies, so the scientific community is sorting this stuff out. But the Mauna Kea claim is apparently a very credible contender.
A 12.9-billion-year-old galaxy almost dates back to the Big Bang itself (13.7 billion years, give or take) and is a lot older than the Earth (4.5 billion years old.)
Given the fast rate of progress in astronomy, I figure that some time next week I'll be driving along, scanning through the radio for some news, and an announcement will go like so: “Scientists see the beginning of time, then break for lunch. More later.”
The old, distant galaxies are where most of the headlines are, but there is some juicy action closer in. I hope I don't ruin any of your holiday plans, but there is a giant cosmic collision coming our way. The nearby Andromeda galaxy and our hometown galaxy, the Milky Way, are converging at a rate of 250,000 miles per hour. In 3.75 billion years they're going to smash together.
That's according to a May 31 article on the BBC's website. They did a nice spread on it, compete with an artist's depiction of the scene. “Our Sun’s position will be disturbed,” says the article, which goes on to offer a soothing note, “But the star and its planets are in little danger of being destroyed.”
Little danger? Well, that sounds just a bit pat to me. Never turn your back on a galactic train wreck, that's what I say. After all, I've never met a man who survived one. Well, except for an Elvis impersonator we met near Vegas a few years back, but that's one guy out of billions.
The notion of Andromeda stuck in my noggin when I was a kid. A movie called The Andromeda Strain hit the scene, and it was quite a thriller. Based on a novel by the same name, it was about a space germ that rides a satellite back to Earth. I used to look heavenward and wonder where Andromeda was, and what it was up to (crashing onto our heads, as it turns out.)
If you think that Saipan's economic problems are big, then they'll shrink out of view if you look at truly big stuff. One estimate from 1999 Hubble data is that the universe harbors 125 billion galaxies. I've seen more recent estimates that go higher. Some galaxies might hold as many as 1 trillion stars. As for our galaxy, it has anywhere from 100 billion to 400 billion stars, and it takes light 100,000 years to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other. Earth is roughly half way between the center of the galaxy and the edge.
I've mentioned this number before, and it's something to ponder the next time you're kicking up sand on Micro Beach: One estimate carried on a 2003 CNN Web article said there are 10 times as many stars in the universe as there are grains of sand in all the Earth's beaches and deserts.
There's more to say on this subject because astronomy is really making headlines these days. And Hawaii, for its part, is a part of this scientific legacy.
Saipan might not host any large telescopes, but the information age allows folks to enjoy the action anyway. Yes indeed, the universe awaits the inquisitive.
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.