Category Archives: Astromony

Star Trek and Its Influence on Space Exploration and the World!

Star Ship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series with stars in the background
Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

The original Star Trek franchise, which ran from 1966-1969 was not just a great sci-fi series. It was a catalyst of innovation, inspiration, and collaboration for people across the world. Concepts such as warp drive, transporter technology, and deflector shields have sparked discussion, and terms such as dilithium crystals initiated conversations. Let’s take a closer look at how Star Trek has influenced fans and scientists alike in space exploration and society as a whole.

Inspiring Future Generations

The franchise ran from 1966-1969 and became a milestone in ingenuity. The series influenced people to look to the skies, wondering what was out there. Star Trek was and still is an inspiration to countless individuals seeking careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and of course, space exploration. Many astronauts, scientists, engineers, and space enthusiasts have cited Star Trek as a formative influence on their interest in space and their decision to pursue careers in related fields.

Woman scientist lookiing up
iStock

Viewers were fascinated as they watched the Enterprise crew encounter new civilizations. Some were more advanced and some whose evolution was considered primitive by 23rd century Earth standards. That is where the Prime Directive came into play. A central tenet of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets’ principle prohibits interference with the internal development of alien civilizations, particularly pre-warp ones, meaning they have not yet developed the capability for faster-than-light travel.

The stories captivated audiences as to how the crew would struggle to maintain the directive when encountering obstacles they had to overcome. One of the most enduring encounters was in “The City on the Edge of Forever” where Dr. McCoy accidentally went back in time and somehow changed Earth’s history. It was up to Kirk and Spock to find McCoy and reverse what he did. Shatner mentioned this as his favorite episode during a YouTube interview with renowned astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson.

A Galaxy of Predators and Peacemakers

It wasn’t just the prime directive the Enterprise crew had to deal with. There were civilizations within the galaxy that found Starfleet to be a threat to them, namely the Klingons, as well as other aliens such as the Gorns – a reptilian humanoid species who Kirk was forced to fight on an alien planet in the episode “Arena“.

Arena was one episode and no more Gorns appeared throughout the series, but the Klingons were another story, as the crew had numerous encounters with them. In “Day of the Dove,” they become entangled in a conflict with them, controlled by a mysterious entity that thrives on hatred and conflict. Fortunately, it ended well, at least for that time, but we won’t spoil the ending by explaining how it happened.

Needless to say, the Klingons were always a thorn in the side of Star Fleet; however, that changed in the Next Generation when a peace treaty was consummated with them. Lt. Commander Worf, a Klingon was the security officer on the bridge. We’ll venture into Captain Picard’s universe in a separate article, focusing only on the original series here.

The show’s optimistic vision of humanity’s future in the 23rd century depicted people from diverse backgrounds working together. This resonated with audiences worldwide and represented a peaceful coexistence between all parties back on Earth. 

Overall, “Star Trek” is a cultural phenomenon that has inspired generations of fans by exploring bold ideas, emphasizing inclusivity, and envisioning a future where humanity’s potential knows no bounds.

The Characters

Lieutenant Uhura

In the 10th episode of the third season titled “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) kissing Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) broke barriers that echoed across the country as the first interracial kiss on TV, and still today, it is looked upon as a milestone that has advanced racial relations in TV and across all media platforms.

Nichols was the first African-American woman to play a lead role on television as Communication Officer Lieutenant Uhura. She met Dr. Martin Luther King, who was inspired by her character on Star Trek and said to her, “Do you not understand what God has given you? … You have the first important non-traditional role, a non-stereotypical role. … You cannot abdicate your position. You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.

Chekov

Star Trek was aired during the Cold War and the Russian national officer Chekov, played by Walter Koenig, sent a clear message that there was mutual peace between the US and the Soviet Union in the 23rd century. Interestingly enough, this did become a reality after the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991. 

Unfortunately, recent current events are proving otherwise, as Valdimar Putin’s attack on Ukraine is reminiscent of past Soviet colonization. Despite this, the International Space Station (ISS) is still strong. It is a collaborative project involving multiple space agencies, including NASA (United States), ESA (European Space Agency), JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and yes, Roscosmos (Russia).

What happens after the Ukraine war remains to be seen, but let’s hope that when the 23rd century arrives, Gene Roddenberry’s view of future world peace still holds.

Lieutenant Sulu

George Takei portrayed Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek series and the first six Star Trek films. He served as the helm officer aboard the USS Enterprise under Captain Kirk. He’s known for his calm demeanor and exceptional piloting skills, expertly navigating the Enterprise through dangerous situations.



Although “Hikaru” is a typical Japanese first name, “Sulu”
isn’t a Japanese surname. It refers to the Sulu Sea, near the Philippines. This is reportedly what Gene Roddenberry wanted – some ambiguity to his origin. Since Sulu was never referred to as specifically Japanese, it allowed Roddenberry to represent him with a broader Asian background, allowing him to represent all Asians within the entire Star Trek universe.

It is no coincidence that in real life, George Takei is full Japanese and felt the wrath of the American internment camps after the Pearl Harbor attacks. He has since become a vocal advocate for racial and social justice and has talked about his experience at previous Star Trek conventions. 

George Takei was born on April 20, 1937, and is 86 years old.

Scotty

Lieutenant Scott, or “Scotty” (James Doohan), as Captain Kirk called him, was the chief engineer of the Enterprise. He is known for his technical expertise and his ability to keep the enterprise running smoothly, even under the most challenging circumstances. Scotty’s catchphrase, “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!” has become iconic in popular culture.

His character is depicted as fiercely loyal to the captain and the crew of the Enterprise. He is often portrayed as having a gruff exterior but also demonstrates compassion and camaraderie with his fellow crew members.

Scotty’s loyalty takes control with support from Dr. McCoy

Scott’s background was from Scotland. His strong Scottish accent and colorful expressions are instantly recognizable. In addition to his engineering skills, Scotty is known for his fondness for Scotch whisky, which adds depth to his character and provides moments of levity in the series. The term “Beam me up Scotty” is a common idiom known worldwide.

Dr. McCoy

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) is a prominent character in the Star Trek franchise, known for his role as the ship’s chief medical officer. He is a highly skilled physician with expertise in various fields of medicine and surgery, but, at times, he finds himself faced with challenging situations, especially when confronted with alien physiology,

Star Trek Enterprise sick bay
Sick Bay Star Trek Museum Ticonderoga, NY

Despite his occasional verbal battles with fellow crewmembers, mainly when addressed by Mr Spock’s lack of human emotion, McCoy can get very poignant and is not afraid to speak his mind, particularly when he feels that ethical principles are at stake. He often serves as a voice of reason, questioning authority and advocating for what he believes is right, even if it means challenging orders from superiors. Overall, however, he shows compassion for the well-being of his fellow crew members.

McCoy shares a close friendship with Captain Kirk, and this dynamic is characterized by playful banter, mutual respect, and unwavering loyalty to one another. His personality is often remembered for his remarks when confronted with events that force him to step outside his expertise, which prompts him to yell out his memorable catchphrase, “I’m a doctor, not a … “.

McCoy’s background is not directly mentioned; however, there are subtle implications that he comes from the southern United States.

Spock
Leonard Nimoy’s most iconic role as Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer, has become a pop culture phenomenon, admired for his logic, loyalty, and the Vulcan salute he originated. “Live Long and Prosper” were the words that accompanied Spock’s salute. He used two fingers to donate it. Although not explicitly addressed in the series, the Vulcan salute represents the Hebrew letter Shin (ש) and refers to the Jewish Priestly Blessing. A blessing from the Old Testament that Nimoy witnessed as a child.

This author was privileged to meet Nimoy while visiting the Jewish Museum in NYC. I asked him what he thought of the other Star Trek series. He responded, “I think of them as my grandchildren. They come, and then they go away”. 

Leonard Nimoy passed away in 2015 from COPD, but his influence on science fiction and popular culture remains immense, especially among NASA engineers. His mindset and discipline helped bridge the gap between human emotions and logic, enlightening children and adults to think clearly and logically when encountering problems.

Kirk

Captain James Tiberius Kirk, portrayed by William Shatner, is one of the most iconic characters in science fiction history.  As the captain of the USS Enterprise, his persona became synonymous with strength, leadership, and exploration of the unknown, along with the phrase “Boldly go where no man has gone before“, and boldly they did travel through the galaxy, encountering new life and civilizations. 

Black and white portrait of William Shatner
Wikipedia Public Domain

You Can Call Me Bill

William Shatner always had a passion for space travel. In 1978, he recorded his version of Rocket Man at the Sci-fi Awards. But his passion did not end there. On October 13, 2021, at age 90, he went from fictional to real spaceman aboard billionaire Jeff Besos’s Blue Origin spacecraft and became the oldest human to ever set foot into space.

I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds, and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her,” reads an excerpt from “Boldly Go” that was first published in Variety Magazine.”

I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary, extraordinary. It’s so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the blue orb. It has to do with the enormity, quickness, and suddenness of life and death.

Shatner, at age 93, is still going strong. On March 17, 2024, he was the guest at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, NYC, hosted by  Neil Degrasse Tyson for a Q&A session after screening his new movie “You Can Call Me Bill.” 

William Shatner speaking with Neil Degrasse Tyson at Lincoln Center
William Shatner and Neil Degrasse Tyson discuss Shatner’s life and philosophy of the universe

Mission Names and Concepts

NASA and other space agencies have drawn inspiration from the show when naming missions or developing mission concepts. The Space Shuttle Enterprise was named after the show. It’s a nod to the franchise, reflecting its enduring influence on the community and its role in shaping the language and imagery of space exploration.

Fueling Public Interest

The series’ portrayal of space travel, alien worlds, and encounters with extraterrestrial life has captured the imagination of millions of people, inspiring them to learn more about the universe. The famous Star Trek conventions and related events have provided forums for enthusiasts to unite, share their passion for space exploration, and engage with real-world space missions. 

Engineering room on the Star Trek Enterprise spacecraft
Engineering room on the Enterprise Museum Ticonderoga, NY

Shaping Spacecraft Design

The original spacecraft, the USS Enterprise, designated by NCC-1701 (Navel Construction Contract, 17 for Starfleet’s 17th starship design, and 01 – the first of this design series), has influenced real-world spacecraft planning. While the functionality of these fictional vessels may differ from actual spacecraft, their sleek and futuristic designs have inspired engineers to think creatively about spacecraft aesthetics and functionality. 

Four views of the Star Ship Enterprise
Image by Gerhard Janson from Pixabay

Promoting Scientific Inquiry

Star Trek’s emphasis on exploration has promoted a culture of curiosity and exploration in society. The series’ portrayal of futuristic technologies and scientific concepts has sparked interest in science and encouraged viewers to learn more about the universe and the possibilities of space exploration. Concepts introduced in Star Trek, such as the Prime Directive and the exploration of strange new worlds, have inspired discussions about ethics, philosophy, and humanity’s role in the cosmos.

Inspiring Technological Innovation

Star Trek has inspired the development of numerous technologies that were once considered futuristic but have since become reality or influenced real-world technology development. Examples include cell phones (inspired by the communicators used by Starfleet officers), tablet computers (similar to the PADD devices seen on the show), voice-activated computers (reminiscent of the ship’s computer), medical imaging devices (such as MRI and CT scanners), and more. The franchise’s imaginative depictions of technology have inspired scientists, engineers, and inventors to push the boundaries of what is possible and strive to turn science fiction into reality.

Exploring Moral and Ethical Dilemmas

Star Trek often explores complex moral and ethical dilemmas through its storytelling. Episodes frequently address issues such as the ethics of scientific experimentation, the consequences of war and violence, and the challenges of diplomacy and cooperation between different cultures and species. By tackling these issues thoughtfully and thoughtfully, Star Trek encourages viewers to reflect on their values and beliefs.

Conclusion

Star Trek’s influence on space exploration is profound and far-reaching, extending from its role as a source of inspiration and imagination to its impact on technology, collaboration, and public engagement.

By envisioning a future where humanity explores the cosmos with curiosity, courage, and cooperation, Star Trek has helped shape the collective aspirations and ambitions of the space exploration community. It continues to inspire generations of space enthusiasts worldwide.

One More Step to Mars!

The Next Step!

The world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon’s surface on July 21, 1969, and his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” resonated across the globe.

Now, 50 years later, we begin our lunar quest again. This time with advanced technology only dreamed of in the mid-20th century. A sci-fi fantasy then, but not anymore. Let’s look at what’s in store for this new, exciting journey!

Artemis

The Orion rocket. Part of the Artemis System
The Orion rocket. Part of the Artemis System

Unlike Neil Armstrong’s day, the Artemis project is led by NASA but includes a collaboration of international partners and is designed for greater ventures beyond the moon. A stepping stone if you will, with the final destination – Mars.

Named after Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis is a fitting name for this venture, as one of its plans is to put the first woman on the moon. The moon will act as a testing ground for the new technologies, and if successful, it will pave the way for these systems for deep space exploration.

Another difference from the 1969 moon landing is that the new spaceship will land on the lunar south pole. This is of particular interest to scientists since this region has water and ice. Water is a critical resource for sustaining life and can also be converted into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

This research will lead to establishing a sustainable infrastructure that can support a long-term human presence.

The Programs Supported by the Artemis Project

The development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft are two of the major developments currently being developed. Let’s take a closer look.

The Space Launch System

Artemis 1 Moon Rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Florida photograph taken March 2022
Artemis 1 Moon Rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Florida March 2022. iStock

The SLS is the super heavy rocket that will propel the Orion spacecraft and its crew into deep space. This is the first of the two main components of the Artemis project. The SLS consists of a rocket and its boosters that will blast the astronauts to the moon and later to deep space.

It will lift off with 8.8 million pounds of thrust and is equipped with four RS-25 core engines in two boosters and an upper-stage booster. They will be using liquid hydrogen and oxygen as their fuel.

No other rocket in history will have the advancements of the SLS. With its ambitious design for deep space, it will contain life support technology for long journeys, advancements in navigation and communications, and a powerful radiation shield for re-entry.

The Orion Spacecraft

The Orion Spacecraft
Orion spacecraft. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. iStock

The Orion Spacecraft is the reusable capsule located at the upper component of the SLS where the astronauts will reside and will contain the modules that will land on the moon. Similar to the lunar module that landed on the lunar surface in 1969.

It can provide life support for up to six crew members for up to 21 days. Orion is a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program and will be the rocket used to land on the lunar surface and to prepare for the mission to move on to Mars.

 

What are White Dwarf Stars?

White Dwarf Star
White Dwarf Stars. Remnant of a dead star in space. The core of a sun after his death. iStock

Stars Can Die in Many Forms

At the end of a star’s life cycle, a star may morph into a white dwarf, a red giant, a neutron star, or a black hole. It all depends upon the amount of mass that is contained in the star’s central core, along with the mass’s gravity.

The more mass that a body contains, the more gravity that is produced, so the more mass an object has, the more gravity that is sustained, and consequently, the more pressure on the object because of its gravitational pull.

llustration of the CNO Cycle of the fusion process.
Illustration of the fusion process. Wikipedia CC

It is this pressure that provides the extreme heat that is generated and subsequently, the fusion of atoms. The types of elements and the density that are fused determine if the dying star will be a dwarf, giant, neutron, or black hole. These rules of physics are universal.

Death Begins

Stars die when the fusion process ceases. Then, depending on its size, it will change into one of the types mentioned above.

Photo of the Sun by NASA
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Our sun, which is in the category called the main sequence, is not an extraordinary star by any means, although we may feel that is not the case here on Earth, as we mortals cannot even set our eyes on it for very long.

The fact remains that in comparison to other stars in our Milky Way Galaxy and other galaxies, our sun is a mere pea when equated to some of the giants in the universe.

With that said, when our sun dies, it will expand to become a red giant.

What is a Nebula?

The Nurseries of Life

Photo of a nebula
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Take a telescope, any telescope, or even binoculars and on a clear day you can see some of the most colorful and beautiful objects in space. These objects are nebulas. The birthplace of stars. It is where it all begins.

Planting the Seeds

When we say seeds, what do we mean exactly? Well, these seeds are actually vast clouds of gas and dust that are floating in space. They come from stars that have previously exploded and left their remnants to roam the universe around like lost soles.

Think of dropping seeds into a pond and watching them float around in the water. Some will collide and some will be pulled away from the other seeds but if that is all there is, we would have these particles floating around arbitrarily for infinity.

Fortunately, there is more than just this particle chaos.  A force is involved that will put all these disorganized fragments to converge into something meaningful.

Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula. Photo: NASA Via Wikipedia CC

What is This Force that Pulls the Particals Together?

The easy answer – gravity. Yes, gravity pulls these particles together. So let’s imagine the nebula as a giant, fluffy cloud in space. Deep inside this cloud, there are regions where the gas and dust are getting squished together. The pressure and temperature rise in these squeezed spots, and eventually, a new star is born from the material in that region.

So, in a way, a nebula is like the starting point for a star’s life. It’s where the ingredients for making a star come together, and as they collapse under their gravity, a bright new star is born, lighting up the cosmic neighborhood.

The Helix Nebula above, which some call “The Eye of God” or “Eye in the Sky” because it resembles a cosmic eye, is located  700 light-years away from Earth. A mere speck of a distance when speaking about the vastness of the universe and is 2.5 light-years in diameter.

The nebula was formed because of the death of a star similar to our Sun. As the star depleted its nuclear fuel, it expanded into a red giant, shedding its outer layers into space.

To learn more about the different types of nebulas there are in space,  Wikipedia gives a complete list of these fascinating and beautiful clouds of life-forming stars.

The Birth of a Star

This phenomenon is the result of gravity pulling gas and dust together. It is a process that is multiplied millions of times within the nebula and the beautiful objects that are forming are the fetal stages of stars being created.

Specifically, the gas is a combination of hydrogen and helium which clump together to form larger masses and since gravity gets stronger as the mass of the object gets bigger, additional matter is attracted to the object, which eventually becomes massive enough to form a star. In other words, it is the gravitational force of an object that is directly proportional to the object’s mass.

Nebula’s Molecular Breakdown

Illustration of an atom's valence electrons
Photo: Pixaby

Unbeknownst to many, most of the universe is not a complete void. There is much (loose) matter floating around between the stars. And this matter is not visible to the naked eye, as it is in its atomic form; such as the atoms of hydrogen and helium, as well as plasma and other materials. This sub-atomic matter is called the interstellar medium (ISM). More specifically, the interstellar medium is composed primarily of hydrogen, followed by helium with trace amounts of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen.

In areas of the ISM where the atomic particles are densely populated, the formation of molecules begins most commonly hydrogen (H2). The more the molecular masses clump together, the greater their gravitational attraction will be to other bodies and particles in their vicinity. As the particles clump further to form larger and more massive structures, they attract more dust and gas.

The Nuclear Element

Enter nuclear fusion, since the gravitational pressure becomes so high that the fusion of hydrogen atoms occurs. This results in the emission of high-energy electromagnetic radiation, which in turn ionizes the outer layers of gas. Ionization is the process by which an atom or a molecule acquires a negative or positive charge by gaining or losing electrons to form ions.

Ionized gas is known as plasma, and plasma along with electromagnetic radiation is now added to this mixture. This then materializes into the early stages of star formation.

Hence, the formation of stars occurs exclusively within these molecular clouds. This is a natural result of their low temperatures and high densities because the gravitational force acting to collapse the cloud must surpass the forces that are working to push the particles outward and the molecular cloud is now a nebula.

Kepler-186f: Is This an Earth Clone?

Discovery

Drawing of astronomer Joannes Kelper
Artists drawing of astronomer Joannes Kelper. Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Johannes Kepler was a 17th-century German astronomer who discovered the systematic rotation of planets around stars, called the Laws of Planetary Motion, it states the following:

  • All planets revolve around the Sun in elliptical orbits.
  • A radius of the planets moves out in equal areas and in equal lengths of time.
  • The squares of the sidereal periods (of revolution) of the planets are directly proportional to the cubes of their mean distances from the Sun. (You don’t have to concern yourself with this law for our article here).

Being that Kepler was a cosmologist who focused his studies on planets, it is fitting that NASA named a spacecraft after him which looks for planets outside of our solar system, called exoplanets.

Specifically, the Kepler Space Telescope is designed to locate exoplanets that exist in the habitable zones, also called the Goldilocks Zone, where conditions are not too hot and not too cold for life as we know it, and which subsequently provides the ingredients for the possibility of liquid water on the planet’s surface. Liquid water is the ingredient that sets the stage for life to cultivate. Water can be found on many planets, some in the form of solid ice, but without water, the possibility of life to develop is minute. 

A Perfect Find!

The Kepler spacecraft has not disappointed us. It has located numerous planets that fit this habitual category. Not the least is Kelper-186f, which not only contains an abundance of water but is also similar to Earth in significant ways.

Artist interpertation of the Kepler exoplanet and its solar system
Wikipedia (NASA) Public Domain

It is an exoplanet that orbits the star Kepler-186 in the constellation Cygnus and is only 500 light-years away from Earth. A mere ‘drop of the bucket’ in distance when considering how incomprehensibly large the universe is.

Kepler’s Sun

Numerous methods are employed to locate these planets. The Kepler telescope uses the transit method which finds celestial objects by observing the periodic dimming of their star’s light as the planet passes in front of it. In other words, it measures changes in the lightness of stars where periodic dips in brightness occur. 

Kepler-186f’s star is an M dwarf, which is a red dwarf. Red dwarfs are smaller and cooler than our Sun, and this star is about half the size and half the temperature of our Sun.

The Planet 

This orbital body is approximately the same size as Earth, making it one of the first Earth-size, habitable-zoned planets discovered outside of our solar system.

The time it takes Kepler-186f to complete one orbit around its star is approximately 130 Earth days. This is shorter than Earth’s orbit around our sun, which is 365 days, but this does not diminish the possibility of life existing there.

Future Research

Due to the current limitations of technology at this time, the Kepler-186f’s distance, although only 500 light years away, our ability to obtain more detailed information remains a significant challenge. 

So further advancements in observational planetary technology are needed to acquire the specifics of distant worlds such as Kepler-186f, but we should look forward to obtaining more information about this exoplanet as it has so much to offer considering its close resemblance to our planet and other physical factors that exist there. 

Conclusion

Kepler-186f may not be a perfect match to Earth, but we should not expect it to be. The existence of life is still a good possibility and if we expand our horizons a bit more, we can consider the potential of intelligent life as well; although these beings might not look exactly as we do.

Despite the planet’s location in the habitable zone, several factors could affect a being’s habitability there. One circumstance refers to the planet’s closeness to its red dwarf sun, which might expose it to increased stellar activity (sun spots, solar flares, plasma eruptions) that are greater than from our sun.

This could impact the planet’s atmosphere and surface conditions, resulting in life forms that could have much thicker skin than us, in order to avoid the dangers associated with ultraviolet radiation and x-rays common from stellar actions.

AI Image Generator extraterrestrial alien with thick skin fotor
AI Image Generator extraterrestrial alien with thick skin. Fotor.com

Even a slight change in any external factor on the planet (temperature, light exposure, gravitational pull, etc) may make their appearance look different from us in one way or another. But does it matter? We should welcome them anyway, or should we? 

Just What is a Supernova?

Man in backyard looking at night sky
Photo: iStock

Picture yourself lying in your backyard on a warm June evening and all of a sudden, a bright flash begins to show up in the sky! No doubt it is an explosion of some kind and your hope is that it is nothing where any lives were lost. On the contrary, it is where life begins as you have just witnessed a supernova explosion! 

So What Exactly is a Supernova?

A supernova explosion
Is this a galaxy? No, it is a supernova explosion!

A supernova, also called supernovea, represents the explosion of a star after it has exhausted all of its energy.  This loss of energy occurs when the star is no able to longer withstand the force of its gravity, thereby causing the star’s core to collapse and subsequently, unleashing an extraordinary burst of energy.

This explosion is a powerful stellar explosion that occurs at the end of a star’s life cycle and is one of the most dramatic events in the universe. Its explosion is so powerful that it outshines entire galaxies, at least for a short time.

According to NASA, a supernova is the largest known explosion in space. The last recorded supernova in the Milky Way occurred in 1604, known as Kepler’s Supernova, and remained visible to the naked eye for an astounding 18 months.

The Seeds of Life

At the time of a supernova explosion, the energy that is released is so extraordinary that, for a short time period, the star will outshine entire galaxies, which is equivalent to a combination of billions of stars combined into one.

This outburst is not just that of light, rather it contains elements like carbon, iron, calcium, and gold, which are the seeds of life via the creation of new planets and stars, called stellar nurseries or nebulas as the term used mostly when referring to the beginning of life in the universe.

 

 

 

 

Potential Life-Sustaining Planets are Closer and Closer

SMACS 0723A galaxy cluster
Infrared light shows the deepest view of distant galaxies ever photographed. JWST Photo: NASA Public Domain

Overview 

The question of extraterrestrial life on other worlds has baffled even the foremost scientists for millennia. With the Hubble telescope and now, the James Webb telescope floating in the cosmos a million miles from Earth, we are finding more and more life-sustaining planets on a frequent virtual basis.

This is different from space observatories being able to determine the existence of exoplanets by spectrum analysis, calculating their gravitational pull from their sun, or by use of the transit methodan observational process whereby a star changes in brightness when a planet is seen orbiting around it. The JWST advanced technology surpassed those methods by actually taking pictures of these exoplanets. This is the first time this has ever been done! 

Exoplanets with Life? Maybe!

In 2013, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Duncan Wright from the University of New South Wales discovered the Wolf 1061 System, using the HARPS spectrograph, part of the European Southern Observatory’s telescope in La Salla in Chile. 

This solar system contains an inactive red dwarf star, orbited by possibly seven planets including three super-Earths. These planets may be capable of supporting life as we know it, as they have a low enough mass to be potentially rocky with a solid surface. 

The most interesting of the three planets is Wolf 1061c. At four times the size of the Earth, it is the closest habitable planet outside our solar system. It also sits in the Goldilocks Zone, close enough to its sun to contain liquid water and support life with its mild temperatures. 

Artist's impression of the planetary system around Wolf 1061
Artist’s impression of the planetary system around Wolf 1061. Photo: Wikipedia Public Domain

Even though rocky planets similar to our own and multi-planet systems are known to be abundant in our galaxy, most of the ones discovered are hundreds, if not thousands of light years away. They are too far for us to get to using current technology.

Still, with the hope of Wolf 1061c sitting right next door, scientists are now hopeful that they can test the planet’s atmosphere in more detail once it passes across the face of its star, making the not-so-lone Wolf planet easier to study and determine if it has the potential to sustain life.

Life is Out There

Illustration of an extraterrestrial
Photo: iStock

Here we list a sampling of just a few exoplanets that could sustain life. 

WASP-39 b

In 2022, the James Webb Telescope discovered a planet, called WASP-39 b in the Virgo constellation. Known as ‘Bocaprins’, the planet orbits a star about 700 light-years from Earth. Scientists were surprised to see that this planet’s atomic structure resembles water and carbon – two of the essential ingredients of universal life.

Kepler-186f

But that’s not all. Planets such as Kepler-186f are one of the planets that astronomers say have a very good chance of potential life, relative to the hundreds of other planets discovered outside of our solar system. Kepler-186f is the first exoplanet found to be in the habitable zone. Slightly larger than Earth, it is 490 light-years away. That’s not too far comparatively speaking.

Kepler-22b

Another close neighbor in the habitable zone is Kepler-22b. This body is about 150 light-years further away than Kepler-186 but has the promise of life just the same. It is about 15% closer to its sun than our Earth is to our sun, but its sun is smaller than ours, so there is a compensation effect where these two factors cancel each other out. 

Subsequently, it still provides the opportunity for the planet to remain in the habitable zone. Kepler-22b has a surface temperature of 72℉. This sounds like a good vacation spot when we get to that point of space travel. For Star Trek fans, you can envision the beautiful planets the crew visited when on shore leave. Well, not so fast.

Kepler-22b might be more on its axis than Earth, meaning half of the planet may have all sunlight 24×7 and the other half may be in complete darkness for every (of that) planet’s six months. Further study has revealed that the planet may be 90% ocean or more; thereby compensating for the seasonal issues. 

Additionally, Kepler-22b has been calculated to have a much stronger gravitational pull than our planet, so walking on this planet may be as hard as trying to walk briskly through water at the same speed that you would be walking on land. 

But if there are creatures on this planet, intelligent or not, natural evolution may cause these beings to look much different from us. Due to the planet’s strong gravitational pull, the aliens may have budging feet full of muscles that would make the strongest man in the world look like a stick figure. They may have more than just two or four legs. Additionally, their internal organs would have to be naturally engineered to handle the physical stresses of the planet’s strong gravity; such as an overly large heart.

The Day the Earth May Stand Still 

If Kepler-22b is life sustainable, it would take astronauts 635 years to get there. So since that is out of the question for us, but if there is intelligent life there or on other planets, their technology might provide a quicker way to come here and visit us. But is that what we would want?  

Black Holes – Most Massive and Most Distant

Illustration of a black hole
Illustration of a Black Hole Photo: iStock. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Leave It Up to James Webb

In July 2023, astronomers discovered the most distant active supermassive black hole to date. This gravitational phenomenon is located in galaxy CEERS 1019, which is seen as it was when the universe was just 570 million years old. This is only 100 million years after the Big Bang, making it the earliest active supermassive black hole ever observed.

The Most Distant One – CEERS 1019

The black hole is also one of the least massive seen in the early universe, measuring the equivalent of about 9 million suns. This is much smaller than the supermassive black holes that are typically found in the centers of galaxies, which can weigh billions or even trillions of suns.

The discovery of this early black hole is baffling astronomers since it has been concluded that supermassive black holes form from the gravitational collapse of massive stars, but in this case, is not clear how a star could have formed so early in the universe and grown to be so massive in such a short time.

This raises questions about the evolution of galaxies. It is thought that supermassive black holes play a role in the formation and evolution of galaxies, but it is not clear how. The discovery of this black hole suggests that supermassive black holes may have been more common in the early universe than previously thought and that they may have played a more important role in the evolution of galaxies than we had realized.

Hopefully, it is a case where we have to back to the drawing board, but this black hole is definitely something where additional thought needs to be done where there may be other entities at work here that we just don’t know about – yet!

The Big One

Although the James Webb telescope is bringing never-before-seen wonders to our eyes, the famous Hubble is not without merit.

300 million light-years away at the heart of the Coma Cluster lies one of the largest black holes ever discovered. The Coma Cluster is a large collection of over 1,000 galaxies, which is quite amazing in its own right.

Of these thousands of galaxies is the elliptical supergiant NGC 4889, discovered in 1785 by the British astronomer Frederick William Herschel. 

NGC 4889 shines as the largest and brightest galaxy and its supermassive black hole is breaking all kinds of records. In comparison, the mass of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is about four million times that of our Sun. The mass of the black hole at the center of NGC 4889 is around twenty-one billion times the mass of our Sun.

Early in its life, astronomers would classify the black hole as a quasar. A quasar is a massive and remote celestial object, releasing large amounts of energy. It is believed that quasars themselves contain massive black holes and are just a stage in the evolution of some galaxies.

At this time as a quasar, NGC 4889’s black hole was devouring all the stars, gas, and galactic dust in its path. This massive meal only fueled the black hole into forming an accretion disc that orbits the black hole and accelerates the black hole’s gravitational pull. The galactic dinner is heated up to millions of degrees and expelled around the black hole up to a thousand times the energy output of our own Milky Way. 

Once the supermassive black hole’s appetite was filled and the lavish meal finished, the black hole fell into a deep and dormant state that it is currently in. The environment of the surrounding galaxy is so peaceful that stars are forming from the remaining gas that’s calmly orbiting the black hole.

Quasars and black holes continue to remain mysterious objects to astronomers and scientists. Luckily with new images thanks to various telescopes around the world astronomers can further their knowledge of these objects. Even though it is impossible to directly see a black hole since light can’t escape its gravitational pull, the mass of a black hole can still be determined. Astronomers in Hawaii at the W. M. Observatory and the Gemini North Telescope measured the velocity of stars moving around the center of NG 4889. These instruments determined the massive supermassive black hole. 

 

The Big Bang Theory – A Technical Overview

Illustration of the Big Bang
Photo: Pixabay

No, we’re not talking about the TV show. We are talking about the real thing. A phenomenon that has baffled scientists and astronomers for millenniums.

Bang Zoom!

It’s the Big Bang that has originated as a pinpoint (yes that small!) of intensely hot, immensely dense energy that appeared out of apparently nowhere. 

It’s the Little Things

If we may steal an excerpt from the bible – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth”. Now allow us to extrapolate this scientifically to mean that there existed an incomprehensively immeasurable point that at some point in time (we say time here as a reference, but it didn’t exist yet), this immensely tiny entity planted the seed of what we call the universe. 

And the Single Things

The origin of the Big Bang is where this tiny region, called a singularity, is where the density of matter, or more technically described as the curvature of spacetime, becomes infinite. 

Confused? You’re not alone, so let’s try defining it another way. A singularity represents the phenomenon that the pull of gravity becomes so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it.

Still confused? How about this explanation? A singularity is where all matter and energy are concentrated into one single point thanks to the force of gravity.

We have seen this occurrence with the existence of black holes.

NASA illustration of the Big Bang
NASA illustration of the Big Bang Photo: NASA

Be Cool

As this hot area began to cool down, the first photons, namely, quarks and leptons condensed out of the fizzing vacuum, like a mist on a cold window to form a quark-gluon plasma sea. (For an illustration of how small these entities are, visit The Scale of the Universe and keep cruising down through the world of the micro-universe, until you reach quarks, 10-18 meters in size).

Time Has Arrived But Atom is Nowhere to Be Found

After one-millionth of a second, the quarks combined into hadrons, primarily protons, and neutrons, while vast amounts of matter and antimatter wiped each other out, leaving only a billionth of the original material, along with vast quantities of gamma rays. About a second after the birth of the universe, its temperature dropped enough to crystallize whizzing neutrinos from the photons. 

Nucleosynthesis started to materialize, with protons and neutrons joining to form the nuclei of helium, deuterium, and lithium.

Minutes later, matter consisted simply of three parts hydrogen to one part helium. The universe was expanding incredibly fast, and after a few hours, there was no longer the density of neutrons to allow any heavier nuclei to form. 

Fast Forward a Few Thousand Years

When the universe was an estimated 377,000 years old, it finally became cool enough for electrons to settle into orbits around atomic nuclei.

For the next 100 million years everything remained dark as the vast ionized clouds of hydrogen and helium expanded. Eventually, however, the photons were set free from the plasma, and the infant universe was unveiled in all its glory.

Any Body Home?

Photo of a nebula
Nebula forming stars and planets. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The first bodies to emerge from the chaos of the early universe were quasars. The most powerful and luminous objects in the universe, early active galaxies, built around young supermassive black holes, forming slight inconsistencies in the otherwise uniform expansion of the universe. 

Soon after, inside and outside of these protogalaxies, Nebulas which are large clouds of the ingredients of hydrogen and helium create stars and planets that start to explode into life. After they exploded, they seeded newly minted elements into the mix. 

And the Cycle of Life Begins

For the next 500,000 years, until the universe’s first billionth birthday, quasars and early stars hatched, lived, died, and were recycling earlier generations and pouring out intense radiation that re-ionized their surroundings. Ninety-nine percent of all matter in the universe remains in the form of fizzy ionized plasma from this time. 

James Webb Telescope – What is it?

Carina Nebula
NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula Star-forming region from James Webb. Photo: NASA Public Domain

A Giant Feat for Mankind

By far, the most extraordinary images from outer space that have ever been received have come from the James Webb telescope. As the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb is the most powerful space observatory ever built, with far more potential than anything that has come before it.

Launched on Christmas Day, 2021 on the Ariane 5 rocket, this giant observatory, the size of a tennis court, is currently in L2 Orbit, located 1.5 million miles from Earth, sending extraordinary images of objects from as back into time as when the big bang started -13.7 years ago. 

To understand why this matters so much to humanity, we first have to understand what the JWST is not. It is not a souped-up version of the Hubble; nor is it an alternative to Hubble — something different but still essentially the same.

Instead, the JWST represents a completely new paradigm in design and function for a space-based optical telescope. In other words: It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

How Does the JWST Differ from Hubble?

James Webb Telescope
JWST in space near Earth. James Webb telescope far galaxies and planets explore. Photo: iStock

The two telescopes, while both space-based observatories are very different in two significant categories.

    • Mirror size
    • Light spectrum

Size Does Matter!

There is a major difference between the JWST mirrors and the Hubble’s mirrors in size. As discussed further in the article, the bigger the mirror, the further back into space we can see.

James Webb Telescope mirrors compared to Hubble's mirrors
James Webb Telescope mirrors compared to Hubble’s mirrors. Photo: Nasa.gov

As a result, this amazing observatory is also about 10 times more powerful than Hubble, with a much wider field of view — and, therefore, able to observe more objects.

Electromatic (Light) Spectrum

The JWST is designed to observe light in infrared wavelengths. Being able to see objects not usually visible to humans, whereas Hubble primarily observes visible and ultraviolet light. 

This is significant because only a very small percentage of the universe’s atoms emit visible light, while almost all atoms emit infrared light. As such, the JWST — in conjunction with other telescopes that are observed in other wavelengths allows us to view a much bigger chunk of the universe than Hubble ever could.

In addition to infrared, the JWST also has a small segment that observes a type of ultraviolet light that is inaccessible to Hubble.

Why is the JWST Important?

The JWST is a completely different kind of telescope that exploits a different approach to astronomy and will, therefore, produce many different results.

With its ability to detect light from the first stars that ever formed in the universe and the first galaxies that ever formed after the Big Bang, it will, for the first time, give us a comprehensive picture of the evolution of the cosmos. 

The JWST will also allow us to look for the earliest signs of life beyond our planet and, as such, represents a major step on humanity’s path toward enlightenment, as well as a greater understanding of who, what, and where we are.

The Telescope Assembly

The observatory is primarily composed of three components:

    •  Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM)
    • The Spacecraft Element
    • The Optical Telescope Element (OTE)

Integrated Science Instrument Module

This is where the infrared components are. It contains the infrared camera and the spectrograph (device which separates incoming light by its wavelength (frequency).

 

James Webb Infrared Component
James Webb Infrared System. Photo: NASA

The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph are used to pinpoint the locations that the JWSP will look at.

The Optical Telescope Element (OTE)

This is where the mirrors are contained. The mirrors are the most significant part of the telescope. Simply put, the larger the mirror, the further back in space we can see and with greater detail,  More specifically, the size of the mirror is directly proportional to the sensitivity (detail) that the telescope can display. The larger it is, the more detail it will show.

This amazing high-tech instrument consists of hexagonal-shaped mirror segments that measure over 4.2 feet across and weighs approximately 88 pounds. It has 18 primary segments that work in symmetry together to produce one large 21.3-foot mirror.

The mirrors are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium, which was chosen due to their thermal and mechanical properties at cryogenic (low) temperatures, as well as beryllium’s weight which made it a lot easier to lift it into space.

James Webb mirror assembly
James Webb mirror assembly. Each segment has a thin gold coating chosen for its ability to reflect infrared light. The largest feature is the five-layer 80-foot long and 30-foot-wide sun shield that dissipates heat from the sun more than a million times. Photo: NASA

“The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier astronomical observatory of the next decade,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This first-mirror installation milestone symbolizes all the new and specialized technology that was developed to enable the observatory to study the first stars and galaxies, examine the formation of stellar systems and planetary formation, provide answers to the evolution of our solar system, and make the next big steps in the search for life beyond Earth on exoplanets.

Amazingly, the mirrors will fold to fit into the spacecraft and then unfold when ejected into outer space.

After a tremendous amount of work by an incredibly dedicated team across the country, it is very exciting to start the primary mirror segment installation process,” said Lee Feinberg, James Webb Space Telescope optical telescope element manager at Goddard. “This starts the final assembly phase of the telescope.”

Bill Ochs, James Webb Space Telescope project manager said “There have many significant achievements for Webb over the past year, but the installation of the first flight mirror is special. This installation not only represents another step towards the magnificent discoveries to come from Webb but also the culmination of many years of effort by an outstanding dedicated team of engineers and scientists.”

The Spacecraft Element

Something must power this system and the spacecraft element is what does it. It supplies the rocket thrusters, propulsion system, communications, and all the electrical power needed to make this run as a well-oiled machine.

Where are We Now?

SMACS 0723A galaxy cluster. Furthers image recorded from James Webb telescope
Deepest Infrared Image of the Universe Ever Taken. Photo: NASA Public Domain 

We will leave you with this. Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which contains thousands of galaxies is 4.6 billion light years away.

That means that we are looking at it the way it looked 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists have a lot of work ahead of them and who knows what they’ll find?